Disney’s Lee Cockerell: Plainly Spoken Leadership

Recently I overheard a woman talking about a friend who was heading to Disney World with her husband. Her exasperated statement made me chuckle.

“They’re going by themselves! I mean, who would bother to go to Disney World without kids?”

Um, this guy.

Disney World is just the greatest place to visit. No offense to my kids, your kids, or kids throughout the world, but I would go to Disney World without kids in a heartbeat. And my daughter, a ten-year old, doesn’t slow me down one bit. I can still dream that there will be a day when my wife and I can go there alone. It will probably never happen.

The Business of Disney

The problem I do have when I go to Disney World is that I become as much a student as I do a guest (customers at Disney properties are called guests and the employees are cast members). That habit doesn’t make it fun for kids and some adults.

I love to take in every detail of the parks and attractions from the guest and cast member perspective. The whole thing is simply genius. It is a well-oiled, well-rehearsed and well-guided fantasy that is designed to make you happy to spend money.

There is a cynical opinion that Disney is just out to squeeze you. I should know. Up until 1997 when I brought the first two Getler off-springs to Disney World, that was my take on it all. Then, through one simple ride, I was transformed. I quickly realized during a ride known as Alien Invasion (now something with Stitch) that Disney delivered. I have never looked back.

The Walt Disney Company indeed wants you to enjoy yourself and spend money. In return, they hire the right people to give you a customer experience that is hard to match anywhere else. As a result, everything runs smoothly, the parks are clean, the food is good and the staff is most helpful.

Lee Cockerell with the boss

Lee Cockerell with the boss

Lee Cockerell Sets the Bar High

The video below marks the third time Lee Cockerell is a guest on Lead or Be Led. Lee is the retired Executive Vice President of Operations of Walt Disney Resorts. Put another way, Lee Cockerell ran Disney World for ten years (and three Hurricanes).

During a recent trip to Orlando, I went to see Lee speak to a group of business people who were the guests of a credit card company. The speakers before Lee were very informative as they discussed the use of Facebook to market cars to consumers through analytics and algorithms. Then Lee spoke.

Lee Cockerell is plain-spoken and matter of fact when it comes to how to lead people to succeed. You hire the right people, you lead by example, you set the standards high, you train people, you clarify things that they didn’t get the first time in training, and you make sure you are a visible part of the people’s day.

Most off all, you expect people to perform. As Lee stated about expectations, Disney World is the Happiest Place on Earth; or else. He said it was okay not to be happy, but you had better ACT HAPPY while working at Disney World.

We need more people leading and in charge like Lee Cockerell. I like the guy so much I am trying to figure out a way to bring him to my community because I think people, especially young leaders, need to hear his message.

When your core value is to create a place where people WANT to go to work instead of HAVE to go to work, that says a lot about a leader. And that should not have to take ping-pong tables and bean bag chairs to make it happen. Lee makes it clear that being a good leader, leadership the way he sees it, is hard work. You need to be better than everyone else, you need to be credible and you need to be reliable.

Lee will speak for himself in the video you are about to watch, but let me hit with one more Lee-ism.

Lee asks what do employees want? The answer is that they want to know you care.

That is why Lee’s simple advice to the busy leader is so important. Yeah, he knows you are busy and he knows that as soon as you get to the office you want to put your head down and start working.

Lee advises that leaders resist that temptation.

In the words of the guy that calls Mickey Mouse the boss, “Touch the people before you touch the work.” Get out there and mix it up with your people. The work will be there when you get back.

Enjoy this third episode of Lead or Be Led with Lee Cockerell. Pick up his two books Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney and The Customer Rules: The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service (affiliate links).

Disney World is a happy and magical place. It takes many talented and well-trained people to make it that way. It takes leadership like the kind Lee Cockerell preaches to keep it in place.

Maybe it is time to add a little magic to your place.

To Watch the Video on Your Mobile Device, CLICK HERE.


About Lee Cockerell

Lee Cockerell is the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World® Resort. “As the Senior Operating Executive for ten years Lee led a team of 40,000 Cast Members and was responsible for the operations of 20 resort hotels, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a shopping & entertainment village and the ESPN sports and recreation complex in addition to the ancillary operations which supported the number one vacation destination in the world.”

One of Lee’s major and lasting legacies was the creation of Disney Great Leader Strategies which was used to train and develop the 7000 leaders at Walt Disney World. Lee has held various executive positions in the hospitality and entertainment business with Hilton Hotels for 8 years and the Marriott Corporation for 17 years before joining Disney in 1990 to open the Disneyland Paris project.

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