The Power of Relational Leadership

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

Commonwealth Dignitaries were in the room from all over the world. Guests from the Royal Family, members of visiting delegations, politicians and notable figures from across the globe had arrived to the extravagant dinner. It was set in the usual state dinner ceremony with lavish place settings and silver dishes and cutlery.  The evening was winding down.  Winston Churchill spotted a distinguish guest across the room stealthily stealing a silver salt shaker from the table.  He had slipped it into his pocket.  Winston promptly took the matching pepper shaker and slipped it into his own pocket.  He approached the gentleman and pulled out the pepper shaker and put it on the table.  In a sheepish way he whispered to the guest, “I think they’ve seen us. Perhaps we had better put them back.”  The dignitary flashed an embarrassed smile and did the same.

What could have escalated into an international incident was gracefully handled by the extraordinary statesman.  Winston knew that leadership wasn’t just about giving orders and enforcing rules.  True leadership demands connection and shared experiences.  He knew the best way to teach and persuade was from the shared trench, not the ivory tower.  In our increasingly polarized world, it is easy to sit at our place settings, casting judgements and issuing decrees.  You may be right, but how will it land?  Humans have difficulty hearing even good moral principles and science when they can’t relate to the messenger.  There is an old adage, “speak the truth in love.”  We fail to listen to each other because we fail to love each other.  Winston’s act of love had a cascading effect.  It reversed a crime, provided a dignified recovery for the guest and taught us all an important lesson in leadership.

I don’t know about you, but some people frustrate me.  It seems I try my best to convince them but they don’t seem to listen.  How can they ignore the facts?  Data doesn’t seem to matter to them.  They don’t respond.  I have come to realize that my impatience and unloving approach is not productive or effective.  I need to change.

As Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Are you trying to persuade or convince someone?  Have you cast aside friends, family or co-workers because they seem unreasonable or unreachable?  As humans, we tend to dismiss anything that doesn’t come from our tribe.  That further polarizes all of us, our mental models and the ability to relate and work with each other. How do we overcome that?  Like Winston’s example, we have to go to where the others are, listen to them, learn from them and relate to them. 

This week, think about the opportunities you have to make an impact on others.  In what ways can you better connect with others, learning from them and teaching?  We are better together than apart.  Let’s do what we can to speak truth in love.  Strive to know other viewpoints, seek to understand and grow together in a positive way.

Words Matter

“In diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” —Maya Angelou

How do you visualize?  If you close your eyes and think about home, family and friends, can you see them in your mind’s eye?  I remember having an in-depth conversation with Ed Catmull who confessed that he can’t visualize mental images at all.  Most people can close their eyes and conjure up images.  But that’s right, Ed Catmull, the scientist who revolutionized computer 3D graphics and co-founded Pixar, has a blind mind’s eye.  It’s a condition called aphantasia.  Ed conducted a survey of artist and production teams across the studio and discovered he was not alone.  In fact, some of the world’s best animators have aphantasia as well.  Glen Keane, who created Ariel (The Little Mermaid), also has no visual imagery.  

How we represent our world in our minds does vary, person to person.  Some of us visualize, some of us don’t.  But we all model the world around us in a way that helps us interact with each other, relate to things and make decisions.  Over time, we construct mental models that help us filter what we see, hear and feel. We build synaptic short cuts that prevent us from being overwhelmed with sensory experiences and our daily work.  We enter our mind palace, even if it can’t be seen, and think about concepts, plan projects, solve problems and even practice interactions with each other.  How do we do that?  Have you noticed?  Well, similar to you reading this today, we do that through “words”.  Now maybe those words are symbols, lists or concepts, but they are a collection of mental Lego blocks that we use to construct our mental reality. How many of those atomic units we have collected and what they are, makes up our mental vocabulary. 

When I was learning Spanish in high school, I remember the moment when I had gained enough understanding of the language to begin creating mental models in Spanish. Up till that point, I realized my mental models were all in English and I was passing all of those models through a “translation function” in my mind instead of thinking natively in Spanish.  “Gran mesa roja” became atomic in my representation of a big red table. I never achieved full model (immersive thinking in Spanish) but it gave me the insight into how we think.  Words and patterns of words are the building blocks of how we see and interact with the world around us.

Words matter.  Because words make up our perception of the world, the words we use affect us and those around us.  How we think, evaluate and relate with things is shaped by our words.  Sometimes the words and phrases that we collect and use to build mental models can be harmful.  For example, technological phrases like “blacklist” and “whitelist” are often used to denote things that should be denied or allowed.  While the connotation of “whitelist” is generally positive, something that you want included and accepted, the inference of “blacklist” is predominately negative, something that should be shunned, blocked or denied.  The general concepts make sense, but the words used can subconsciously create a mental association that anything “black” is bad, negative, a threat or an object that should be denied or avoided.  Tragically, this can shape our model such that a “black person” is unintentionally connected with the same connotation.  This is the danger.  Words shape our reality and words can project unintended meaning or reality onto others just by simple association.

I’m proud to say that as part of our inclusive efforts, Disney technology leadership is taking on this issue so that we can level up.  Technical words and phrases that are culturally insensitive or can threaten our inclusive efforts will be replaced with more inclusive terms.  In many cases, these are actually better descriptors for the intended concepts anyway.  Using phrases like “allow-list” or “deny-list” not only encapsulates the concept but describes it as well.  Now, to be fair, I know this isn’t an easy transition.  A lot of these words are deeply ingrained in the industry and our mental models.  But it is the right thing to do.  We don’t want unintended association to negatively impact us or any of our fellow team members.  Everyone is a welcome member of our human family and we are willing to reshape our language and mental models to help enforce that love for each other.

Join me in helping raise awareness on this issue.  Call me out if I accidentally use words that are non-inclusive.  To reshape tomorrow, we need to challenge each other, our teams, our vendors and ourselves to use this more inclusive language.  If you have any ideas that might help, please let me know.  We can create a better more inclusive world.  Sometimes it is as easy as changing one word at a time.

Keep Learning

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler

As a kid, I was inspired by movies like TRON to explore computers.  I caught the bug as soon as I saw how easily software could be used to shape reality and improve things.  I spent 6 years skipping around between computer science, mathematics, physics, electrical and civil engineering.  I even invested a year working toward a masters in divinity until I realized Koine Greek wasn’t a new computer language.  

My dad was a civil engineer with crazy mad RPN calculator skills. He could crank out and tabulate thousands of calculations per day.  But one day I wrote a bit of software and suddenly a week’s worth of tedious error prone work was done in minutes.  He immediately hired me to “computerize” the rest of his business.  With my educational background, I thought I was set… I could change the world (or at least my corner of it), one program at a time… but I still had a lot to learn. I soon discovered I didn’t know enough about statics and dynamics for the structural engineering work I needed to do.  I also needed to dive deeper into 3D geometry and computer graphics for modeling complex systems.  I went back to school.

There is a thought that education is just a box you need to check to begin your career.  You may get certified, degreed or licensed and now you are done, right?  Nope! Those are all great, but they are just visible footprints on the stairway of continual learning.  Learning expands the mind and prepares us for more learning.  Each step along the way reveals new vistas of knowledge to explore, new puzzles to solve and new mastery to obtain.  We are forever on this learning adventure, growing and thriving on the food of knowledge, discovery and experimentation.  Every new cognitive challenged unlocked is like an awakening.  It is the physics of life.  Each discovery expands who we are and carries us to a new level.  We are alive and growing when we are learning.

Learning can be fun, but it isn’t easy.  It takes work.  It can be exhausting and even frustrating at times.  Because of that, there is a temptation to become comfortable with our current state.  We may find we can get by with what we already know, often for years without having to learn something new.  But we aren’t growing.  We become stale.  Our capacity to move ourselves, our teams and our organization forward, withers.  Like physical exercise, mental exercise is required to stay healthy, vibrant and alive.  Just as we should plan to exercise our physical bodies to stay healthy, we should plan to exercise our minds as well. 

What are you learning?  May I suggest, if you aren’t learning anything new right now, pick something new and start learning it today?  I know it isn’t easy, but embrace the constructive discomfort and expand your knowledge and skill.  Tackle it.  Imagine yourself thriving and growing.  Don’t limit yourself. Set a goal to upgrade your knowledge every week.  Study, grow and keep learning!

Embracing Grief

“What is grief, if not love persevering?” – Vision

I was standing outside the tent addressing the small crowd of family and friends that had gathered by my dad’s graveside. The June sun was hiding behind the clouds but some of the rays glistened off of the nearby fence surrounding the cemetery.  I opened with my dad’s favorite joke, “Do you know why cemeteries have fences? It’s because people are dying to get in there!”  He loved that joke.  I went on to talk about my dad, forever the engineer, who taught me to “think ahead,” plan, tackle any problem and always leave things better than you found then.  I miss him.  That was 2015 yet even to this day, grief of his loss visits me.

Grief is a tricky thing.  For those of you who have lost loved ones, you know how it doesn’t play by the rules.  It will wash over you at the most inopportune times.  It isn’t logical.  It would perplex, frustrate and annoy me.  I would wish it away but that usually meant it would only hide for the moment to build more energy for the next unannounced round.  Instead, I have come to realize that grief is not an enemy or adversary, it is a friend.  It is the echo of love that endures the separation of the source and object of that affection.  It is the mind and spirit refreshing that cherished connection and celebrating the memory of that loved one.  It is, as Vision from Marvel’s WandaVision put it, “love persevering.”

As we bid farewell to my wife’s mother a week ago, I am reminded how bad we are at taking care of ourselves during sorrow and loss.  I wanted to jump back into work, bury myself in tasks.  But instead, we spent time as a family going through my mother-in-law’s affairs.  Sorting, cleaning and remembering.  Sure, there was sadness, but there was also times of laughter and happiness.  I’m glad we did that.

So many of you reached out with sympathy, kind words, encouragement and even help. Thank you! It was overwhelming and encouraging. I know many of you have also suffered the loss of loved ones in recent years and even shared your own journeys with me.  Our human journey is not without suffering.  This recent chapter in my life reminds me how important it is to give ourselves time, permission and care to remember, to grieve and even to heal.  My advice to all of you who have suffered loss, and for the rest who will, make sure you give yourself that time and grace to mend.  Embrace the fog of grief and welcome the memories, no matter how difficult they may be to bear.  They are just visiting friends, reminding you that love does not die, it perseveres.  Cherish it!

Begin Again

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s Party!’” –  Robin Williams

A blue California Scrub Jay just landed outside my window.  His beautiful white beard and bright blue feathers seemed to glow in the early morning sun.  He hopped across the fence and suddenly dove down and picked up some seeds he spotted on the ground.  He jumped back to the fence and then soared into the sky.

Spring!  I know it started a couple of weeks ago, but this weekend finally felt like Spring.  Having been safe-at-home inside for the past several months, there is something wonderfully hopeful about the budding, blooming and greening debuting outside our windows.  When I take a walk outside, I see new life emerging from the death of winter.  Fresh new green leaves are unfolding on the ivy and trees.  Seedlings are poking their heads toward the sun. Tiny flowers begin to pop color across the faded winter landscape.  I look up and see birds like my early morning blue Jay visitor, swimming through the new Spring air, singing and dancing across the sky.  I hear and see the  squirrels running across the yard, darting gracefully over fences and up the trees with renewed vigor and determination.  Spring is here!

It is easy to be busy.  We all have planning to do, tasks to complete and meetings to attend.  But before you get too lost in the hustle, I encourage you to take some time this week to enjoy Spring.  Go for a walk.  Grab a cup of coffee or tea and sit outside and relish the melody.  Listen to the sounds.  All creation sings, “We begin again!”  Drink in the new colors.  Smell that new life energy.  Breathe in the cool April air and embrace the warming sun, peeking over the housetops.  Don’t miss it!  We are all part of this springtime party.  Enjoy it!

Epilogue – Eternal Dividends

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” – Steve Jobs

My wife’s mother, Alice, has myelodysplastic syndrome.  It is a disorder that disrupts the production of healthy blood cells and is related to leukemia.  Some of you had the opportunity to meet Alice at one of the annual Christmas parties we host (prior to COVID).  She enjoyed the holiday treats and the opportunity to meet many of you and your families.  She always loved to tell the stories of her 87 years.  She came to live with us about ten years ago and has been on many adventures with us this past decade.  Last week, at her request and the advice of her doctors, we put her into hospice in our home.  She is ready.  Our goal is to keep her comfortable and allow family and friends to safely visit, commemorate her pending graduation and bid last farewells.

As the final paragraph of my mother-in-law’s life is penned, sadness and joy crash against our hearts.  Like the tide, those feelings and memories rise and fall.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings or other loved ones know the complex fog that sets in as grief and mortality arrive with powerful force.  The emotions and the moments begin to refine the matters of the heart.  There is a clarity that surfaces.  What’s really important begins to emerge.

How will we end?  We will all face and journey through the valley of death at some point.  We all have the pending task of writing the epilogue to our life.  What will be in that final chapter?  How shall we sum up?  Will we have regrets?  What would we have changed?  These powerful questions are really a gift. It’s life’s housekeeping angel that reminds us to examine what we are doing, reflect on our priorities and focus on what really matters.

I often say, “We should focus on high value targets.”  Don’t get busy with being busy, apply your talent, time and energy to what matters.  Understand the outcomes you want to achieve and trim away everything that doesn’t contribute to making that happen.  Keep the faith.  Don’t settle.  Pursue your dreams.  Love with all your heart.  Care for your loved ones and invest in others.  Eternal dividends are not measured in dollars and pounds, they are measured in the moments, the people and the legacy we leave behind.  Today begins the first day of the rest of your life.  Optimize for greatest impact.

A Sonic Revolution

“We knew it could become big but could have never imagined it would be a revolution.” – Lou Ottens

Magnetic tape was genius!  A ferric oxide placed on a thin plastic film allowed the world to record, store and playback audio.  It revolutionized broadcasting, radio and especially, music.  In 1960, the portability of that music was still captured in a clumsy 7-inch reel.  It wasn’t easy to play. You needed a hefty machine the size of a small suitcase.  Lou wasn’t happy with that.  

Lou loved technology.  He was ever the engineer and loved solving problems.  As a teenager during World War II, Lou made a radio for his family so they could listen to programs like Radio Oranje.  To avoid the Nazi jammers, he even constructed a primitive directional antenna.  Just as he had made those freedom broadcasts accessible to his family, he now turned his attention to democratizing music.

The 7-inch music reel was too bulky and awkward for the general population.  He wanted music to be portable and accessible.  He thought a lot about what it should be like.  Trying to envision something that didn’t yet exist, he began shaping it into a small wooden block.  It needed to be small enough to easily fit in your hand and more importantly, fit in your pocket.  His “compact cassette” tape came to life in 1963 and quickly became a must-have sensation across the world.  It unleashed a multi-billion dollar industry but also taught us how to use our own voice.  The cassette became an audio canvas for the masses to self-create their own albums or compile their own mixtapes to share with others.  For those of you who don’t have as many candles on your cake as I do, mixtapes were basically the playlists of the 1980s.

The cassette tape was a raging success, but Lou wasn’t happy with it.  He complained about the noise and distortion that would eventually plague the aging tapes. In his mission for higher fidelity, he worked with his company, Philips and Sony to co-develop the digital optical storage system, the compact disk (CD).  As he had done with the cassette tape, Lou championed a portable disk size that could be easily held and used.

Lou Ottens passed away earlier this month, at the age of 94.  He sparked a worldwide sonic revolution, but humbly dismissed his role as nothing special, instead crediting other engineers and designers for bringing his ideas to life.  Lou reminds us that making science and technology accessible is just as important as the discovery itself.  

Do we make our complex technical inventions and solutions accessible?  When technology is done well, the technology itself fades to the background and becomes “indistinguishable from magic”.  That is to say, it provides a human experience and value and doesn’t get in the way.  My challenge to us this week is to examine the solutions we deliver and ask ourselves, can we make them more accessible and magical?  

As Lou taught us, the genius of a great idea is not just in the science, it is making that technology portable and accessible.

One Year of COVID-19

“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” – Fred Roger

We were boarding the flight to Orlando for a week packed full of meetings.  The plane was mostly empty.  Speculation and warnings about the new SARS-CoV-2 virus were just starting to hit the news and guidance had been given to wash hands and sanitize everything.  Scientist were still studying how long it could survive on surfaces.  My wife sent me a video on how to “sanitize your seat” on the airplane.  All of us on the trip discussed and shared wipes and sanitizers.  Little did we know that the Coronavirus variant would transmit primarily through the air, so masks were not yet a priority or recommendation. 

Walt Disney World was full of guests when we arrived, but there was an eerie feeling that something was about to change.  By the end of the week, Disney leadership announced the closure of the Parks and Stores.

“In an abundance of caution and in the best interest of our guests and employees, we are proceeding with the closure of our theme parks…”

Guests were urged to stay in their rooms.  We all worked from the hotel room on Friday, watching the news break and seeing the stock market plunge into free-fall territory.  In just a few days, California would be the first state to announce stay-at-home orders and shortly after, other states would follow.  Public venues, theaters and sporting events began reporting cancelations or closures.

Returning home on that flight was somber and surreal.  Everyone kept distance, not knowing how much interaction would be acceptable or safe.  It was clear that things were going to change dramatically. Guidance to wear masks and temporary “Safe at Home” remote work direction came.  Little did we know that these temporary measures would still be in place a year later. 

In some ways, it feels like just yesterday that we were on that flight and in other ways, a decade ago.  We have all been through a lot this past year.  So many changes and challenges.  Over this past year, some of us experienced tragic loss, sadness, frustration, and loneliness.  At times, we may have felt depressed and overwhelmed.  The dark clouds of the pandemic seemed to cover the sky, blocking out all the rays of optimism. 

Yet in the midst of this crisis, there were glimmers of hope.  I saw heroic efforts from our team to help each other, showing kindness, compassion and concern for each other.  I saw us step up to the challenge and help our company move forward with efforts to improve security, reduce costs and support our businesses.  We saw the explosive growth of our streaming platforms with hits like The Mandalorian and WandaVision, the release of Raya and The Last Dragon, Mulan and Soul, Ecommerce shopping records, the NBA Bubble and the invigorated determination of our company to help combat social injustice.  All of that proved that we can survive and thrive even during difficult times, even remote. 

On a personal note, we learned how to balance home life, child care, school and work projects, sometimes colliding together on calls as we figured out and embraced the new normal.  We might have picked up a few new hobbies, completed some much-needed maintenance work, taught ourselves some new technology or learned a new language.  OK, maybe some of that was more of a directional goal than an accomplishment. 😉

The good news is that there is a light ahead. Scientists and researchers discovered not one, but many effective vaccines that are now being rolled out.  Infection and mortality rates have declined.  More things are opening up.  We are all looking forward to being able to go out freely in public again, to be able to enjoy a dinner out, a movie, a concert or a day at Disneyland.  It seems more possible with each day and it seems confidence grows as the days grow longer.

As we mark this one-year anniversary, I challenge you all to hope.  Appreciate all that has been endured and must still be healed, but celebrate the discoveries you have learned and the accomplishments we have reached. The rest of our life begins today.  Give it a warm hug and let it thrive.  We can do this!  We have just begun…

Stay well,

Jason

Restlessly Pursue Learning

“We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process… And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.” – Peter Drucker

It was hard for little Bill to sit still. He was ready to run into the world, pushing through barriers and making a difference.  He was a natural leader and soon became the first black student body president of Foshay Middle School in Los Angeles.  He continued to break norms by being the first black student body president at Polytechnic High School before graduating with honors.  He went on to get a degree at UC Berkeley before being drafted into the U.S. Army.  He served 2 years during the Korean War, attaining the rank of Captain.

After the Army, Bill enrolled in the pre-med program at UCLA.  He was accepted as the first African American medical student.  After graduating he interned at Harbor General Hospital.  He specialized in obstetrics and gynecology and opened two women’s clinics in Los Angeles.  He later became the first African-American resident at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles.  Bill loved people and had a special affection for children.  He served his longest time at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he once held the record for the most infants delivered.  

Forever learning, restless and driven, Bill at the age of 52 and after 14 years of medical practice, returned to school and received his J.D. from Southwestern University School of Law.  After passing the bar, he worked as a forensic attorney helping victims in malpractice suits.  He served on the Board of Governors of the UCLA Foundation and even after retiring, went back to practice medicine and law until his passing.  Through his life, he touched so many other lives.  His impact was far reaching and he was even recognized by the U.S. Congress for his life’s work and achievements. 

Bill’s life reminds us that we can all restlessly pursue learning and improvement.  We can challenge the limits others place on us or we place on ourselves.  I hope Bill’s story inspired you as it did me.  Keep learning.  Keep striving.  Keep helping.  We can make this world a better place, if we try.  And, like Bill, we can also leave behind a legacy that can inspire the next generation. 

Oh, and one more thing…  Dr. Lawrence William “Bill” Scott not only left behind a legacy of “firsts”, he also passed on his passion of science and the restless pursuit of learning through his children.  You might know at least one of them.  His son is a leader at Disney and in the industry, a champion of technology and the restless pursuit of learning, Brian L. Scott.

Keep learning!

Pursue Your Dreams

“Even though I worked hard at times, it was always magical. I have to confess I enjoyed every minute of it. Even the down times I enjoyed, because we were creating something that would make people smile and lift their hearts. You can’t think of a better job than that.” – Floyd Norman

A tall skinny young man passed through the gates of the Walt Disney Studios.  He was on his way to meet Ken Seiling in the Personnel Department.  As he looked around the campus, he must have thought back to his childhood.  He had been so inspired by Walt Disney cartoons and animated features.  He loved drawing.  He often found canvases to adorn with his art.  That included, much to his parent’s dismay, even the walls of his house as a young child.  Growing up he had dreamed of being part of Walt Disney’s magic factory.  His dream motivated him to reach out to Disney and was eventually connected with Ken.  Ken agreed to meet with him after he graduated from High School.  Today was that day.

His dream was happening before his eyes.  He was inside the Disney creative factory speaking with Ken.  Ken offered him a job in Traffic.  But understanding the young man’s passion he quickly added, the wise choice would be going back to school.  “Go back to school,” may have been disappointing to hear.  It would have been tempting to take the easier path and just settle for the Traffic job.  However, that is not what happened.  The young man took the advice and went back to school.  Three years later in February 1956, he, along with other starry-eyed youngsters reported to work at 500 South Buena Vista Avenue to start their careers in the cartoon business.  He later reflected, “like Alice, we had entered Wonderland.” 

That young man was none other than Floyd Norman who went on to become a Disney Legend, spending over 60 years in animation. He is credited on many familiar titles including Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.

Like Floyd, we all have dreams. But how do we act on them?  Do we settle or do we keep pursuing?  Hopefully, like me, you are inspired by Floyd’s story to keep running after your dreams, don’t be afraid to reach out and try.  But also, don’t be afraid to pivot, learn and try again.  We may not all become Disney Legends like Floyd, but we can all run after our dreams and make a difference.  It begins with us.  Keep trying, keep the faith.

PS – Check out Floyd’s story in this great documentary on his life: Floyd Norman: An Animated Life

Floyd Norman
Floyd Norman