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Rise above rival’s petty moves

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Walt Disney’s optimism inoculated him from much of the scheming and betrayal that he faced as a young entrepreneur. When others tried to muscle him out of business, he sought creative solutions.

At age 20, Disney (1901-1966) launched his first animation business. After some initial failures, he produced his first cartoon and partnered with a New York firm to distribute it.

The New York distributor, however played hardball and lured away his animators. By pilfering his workforce, the distributor figured it could gain leverage. “Either you come away with me at a price, or I'll take your organization away from you,” he told Disney. “I have your key men signed up.”

Unfazed, Disney told his brother, Roy, “Keep your chin up. We will be able to laugh last. That’s the best laugh of all.”

Four years later, it happened again: Disney’s distributor hired away his lead animator. Another unethical move—a bald attempt to take advantage of Disney—backfired as the visionary decided to shift gears and take a bold new risk.

He declared he would splash color on the screen. This caused production costs to soar, but Disney gambled that color would differentiate his product and thus make it more valuable over the long term.

His hunch proved correct. Color cartoons lasted longer in theaters and earned more revenue over time.

By 1940, the company had grown quickly but faced financial pressure. In a meeting with Roy, Disney responded to a grim summary of the firm’s struggles by bursting out laughing.

He said he marveled at how much the company had evolved over nearly 20 years—and that owing banks $4.5 million showed just how much they had grown. That positive perspective changed everyone’s mood—and the Disney team decided to go public and raise the necessary funds.

— Adapted from Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas, Disney Editions.

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