Book Review: “Creating Magic” by Lee Cockerell

| June 30, 2009

OK, I admit I did not think “Creating Magic”, a book on leadership strategies, by Lee Cockerell, the former Executive Vice President of Walt Disney World Resort Operations, would have much to say to me.  I am not a businessman, and do not look at my day job as one needing the leadership strategies in the book.  However, I met Lee Cockerell on the Podcast Cruise this past May, and heard him speak.  Plus, Pete Werner and the DIS Unplugged crew highly recommended the book; so I decided to take a look.  I was surprised to find the book full of useful information that definitely pertained to my life, and Lee included enough anecdotes from his experiences at Walt Disney World to hold my attention.  Once Lee quoted Fox Mulder of The X Files, I was sold.  “The truth is out there.”  Read on to learn why I recommend “Creating Magic” for everyone whether you run a business or not.

Let me start this review with my story.  I am an academic with a PhD in neuroscience working at a college in the State University of New York (SUNY) system – probably not the target audience for this book.  However, I also work with our college’s office of leadership development, and “Creating Magic” certainly related to the work I do with that program.  As I read Lee’s book, there were a number of points that resonated with me not just for my professional life but also on a personal level as well.

“Creating Magic” is organized to explain 10 leadership strategies.  The first leadership strategy, as well as overarching philosophy at Disney, is that everyone is important.  My wife and I try to follow this as our parenting strategy by listening, including, and empowering our daughters in family decisions.  In addition, I embrace this strategy in my college teaching as well.  I abhor hierarchies and “academic elitism”.  In my classroom, I believe we can learn from everyone – not just the professor at the front of the room as the “sage on a stage”.  It is important to listen to the students, but students and professors are not the only members of a learning community.  As a neuroscientist, I may give a lecture on the biological causes multiple sclerosis (MS), but the community member living with MS is much more of an expert on the disease than I will ever be.  That community member can teach us about the daily living with MS that I would never be able to gain from a book or journal article.  So yes, Leadership Strategy #1 “Everyone is Important” is useful to both my personal and professional life.

In “Creating Magic” Lee describes how Disney’s bottom line benefited from listening to Cast Members at every level of the company.  We all know our country is currently dealing with one of the worst financial crises in decades.  The State of New York (like California, Michigan, and many other states) is also dealing with a serious budget crisis due to the downturn in the economy.  Our SUNY system is directly supported by the state budget, and has been hit hard by the budget crisis.  After 9/11 Disney went through a similar financial crisis and “faced new challenges because of the drastic declines in revenues and the uncertain future of tourism.”  Lee discusses strategies Disney used to deal with their financial crisis such as wage and hiring freezes; strategies SUNY is also employing.  However a number of cost-cutting ideas Disney used came directly from frontline Cast Members such as making bus routes more efficient to save on gas and cutting down on landscaping duties.  These ideas allowed Disney to keep everyone employed during a difficult time.  We in higher education would also be smart to call upon employees at all levels while looking for cost-cutting solutions.

One of the things I found most impressive about “Creating Magic” was Lee’s strategy of personal balance.  I am very surprised to find a high-powered Executive Vice President of a multi-billion dollar company advocate putting health and family on equal footing with professional life.  Lee believes balanced people with lives outside of work are the best employees, and he practices this philosophy in a myriad of ways.  Lee left the office every day at 5:15pm to go to the gym.  He would attend his children’s events and activities, and he also loves of cooking and describes making French food for the family and cooking food for his son’s sporting events.  In the book, Lee suggests not having separate professional and personal lives – it’s all ONE life.  “I learned to lead one full life instead of trying to lead two separate ones – one business and one personal.  I learned to enter personal necessities – time with family and friends, my daily workouts, etc. – as appointments on my calendar, just like business meetings.”  For a senior executive, Lee Cockerell is in touch with the attitudes of today’s young professionals.   “They’re also not as obsessed with becoming the head honcho as people used to be.  Many of the younger people entering the workforce grew up in homes where Mom and Dad were single-mindedly focused on their careers.  They saw the consequences of an imbalanced life.”  It was refreshing to read Lee’s strategy of balance as a necessary component for a complete, happy and successful person.

At the risk of sounding cliché, there is definitely something for everyone in “Creating Magic”.  There are small details with leadership tips such as: get out from behind your desk and sit next to employees during meetings.  There are larger strategies such as understanding your values and principles, the basis for them, and staying true to those values.  As a member of the higher education field, I thought Lee’s strategy for continuous education to become a leader was apt.  I will leave you with one final quote from his book: “In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.  The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”  Disney Great Leader Strategies

If you have read the book, please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  If you haven’t read the book, get a copy.


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Category: Disney World, Editorials

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  • klam_chowder

    Thx a mint for your review, Dave.

    I too was surprised at the life-balance he struck, most of the time anyway. Opening Disney Paris probably wasn’t one of those times…LOL!

    Also shocked at the number of notes and award pins he sent out – 700 a month. Wow.

    The book showed me a more direct route. For me to find out not what happened, but why it happened. I usually get there but his explicit mention takes this goal to the forefront for me.

    He’s a bit of dichotomy – while much of the book relates to bettering the bottom-line, his attention to CMs and Guests shows he’s people-person. Interesting.

    cheers,

  • daneenm

    Thanks Dave!

    I am enjoying listening to the book. I’m not done yet, but i am happy to hear that some of the strategies I use as a manager are those that Lee advocates and am learning a lot about other tricks I might try.

  • miss missy

    Great review Dave!

    I love “Creating Magic” and I have gone through the book twice already. I just bought another tonight for someone else. Lee hits leadership spot on! His style is story telling and the Disney stories alone are worth the read. You learn some pretty neat things about how Disney runs it’s operation.

    Lee is a Husband, Father and a Grandfather and a leader who “gets” the importance of having a work and family balance. He walks the walk! Lee is a genuine man in all aspects of his life and that is hard to find these days. I like to learn from the best and I did by reading Lee’s book. Lee treats all people as friends. His sincere interactions with people are something I truly admire.

    My workplace is as opposite as Lee’s teachings as it can get. There are many corporations today that can benefit from his teachings as well. Just think of the places you do business with and I am sure you can think of some very easily.

    In “Creating Magic” Lee is candid about his early leadership “mistakes,” and he speaks of how he learned from them and was able to develop into the leader he is today.

    As a parent I apply many of Lee’s strategies. We all know that running a household is no different that operating a business! There is so many tips in the book to put into play in your everyday life.

    I wish I could be Lee’s adopted daughter :) so I can learn even more from him! Whether you are looking to improve your personal or professional life, I highly suggest you get his book.

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