Leadership Lessons from Disney Animated Movies

ETL Disney_MGM_StudiosDisney’s animated films have played a part in our lives for decades. Many of us know the Disney versions of the fairy tales better than we know the originals. But most of us probably don’t think of leadership when we think of Disney.

But isn’t that what most Disney movies are about? A character discovering who he or she is and what role she plays in the world? Isn’t the most common motif a character discovering its potential and becoming a leader of sorts?

Take a look at the list below and ask yourself if you’ve seen these nuggets of leadership truth in the Disney classics… and if you’ve implemented them in your own life.

1. Beauty and the Beast: don’t force love; earn it

When The Beast first meets Belle, he is gruff and coercive. He knows that he needs her to fall in love with him in order to break the spell that turned him into a monster and yet he attempts to woo her by bellowing things like, “You will join me for dinner. That’s not a request.” Eventually, though, he nearly kills himself by rescuing her from a pack of wild wolves. That’s the turning point — the point at which she starts to love him back.

In many ways, leadership is all about love. When people love you and what you stand for, they will follow. Yes, you can force them to follow you, but that’s not a very sustainable method. It’s much better to win them over by serving them and laying your life on the line to save theirs.

2. Aladdin: just be yourself

Aladdin just wants to impress a girl. Unfortunately, he’s a “street rat” and she’s a princess. Lucky for him, he stumbles upon a genie who offers to grant him three wishes. He Uses his first wish to turn himself into a prince in order to woo Jasmine. He tries the entire movie to keep up the charade only to find out in the end that she loves him for who he is — not who he’s pretending to be.

The lesson? Just be yourself. If people don’t love you for that, their love isn’t worth having in the first place.

3. The Lion King: it’s your kingdom; if you don’t fight for it, who will?

The lion king is a movie about running from your responsibility. Future lion king Simba runs away from his home after mistakenly believing he’s responsible for his father’s death. While he’s gone, his evil uncle scar assumes command and drives the kingdom to the brink of starvation. Meanwhile, Simba is living a care-free life in the wild with new friends and no worries. When he has a chance meeting with his childhood love interest, he is reminded of his destiny. He returns to his kingdom, saying, “It’s my kingdom. If I don’t fight for it, who will?” You are the king of your life.

You are the only one who can keep your domain from falling into disarray. Leaders take responsibility and fight for what is theirs.

4. Toy Story: you’re not a space ranger… and that’s okay

All through the movie, Buzz — a newly-acquired space toy for Andy’s collection — thinks he is actually a space ranger. He thinks that he can fly. He thinks his laser actually works. He truly believes that he’s the genuine article. Naturally, his heart is broken when he realizes he’s just a toy. Nevertheless, he is able to pull himself together and come to terms with being Andy’s toy.

As leaders, we need to recognize that we’re also human. We will fall short of what we hope we are. We will let ourselves and others down. But we can always do the best with what we’ve got. We may not be space rangers, but we can be the best toys that we can be.

5. Hercules: being a hero isn’t about celebrity; it’s about sacrifice

Hercules is on an endless quest to become a hero so that he may rejoin the gods with his father, Zeus. He defeats countless monsters with ease and becomes such a huge celebrity that he even his enemies are consuming products endorsed by him. Yet, none of this makes him a hero. It isn’t until he gives up his own life for a mortal soul that he achieves immorality and becomes a true hero.

Leaders are analogous to heroes and heroines. And we face that same dilemma — the choice between soaking in the limelight and laying our dignity on the line for the good of our followers. The willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice is what truly defines the great leader.

6. Mulan: being true to yourself is the greatest gift you can give to others

Just like Aladdin, Mulan struggles with her identity. She doesn’t fit the mold of the domestic Chinese woman and wonders where she fits in. Then, she poses as a male to take her father’s place in a war and ends up saving her country from invaders. When she takes the risk and adventure of being a warrior, she finds her true self — and everyone else reaps the benefits.

When you pretend to be somebody you’re not, everyone loses. Your followers are only benefitted when you give them the best version of yourself you have to offer. Forget stereotypes. Forget expectations. Do what you do best — that’s the only way to truly be helpful to others.

7. Dinosaur: the strong are morally responsible for the weak

Aladar joins a pack of migrating dinosaurs led by Kron — a militaristic social Darwinist who forces the pack to leave behind the old, weak, and sickly to die. Aladar opposes him and defends the weak, insisting that it is the responsibility of the strong to protect them.

The willingness to defend and nurture the weak and helpless is what separates the leader from the dictator. Darwinism, schmarwinism. Your followers — from the greatest to the least — are what make you a leader. Look out for the well-being of every single one of them.

8. The Emperor’s New Groove: it’s not about you

Emperor Kuzco is used to getting everything he wants until he is betrayed by his right-hand woman and inadvertently turned into a llama. He then must enlist the help of a peasant (Pacha) whose home was going to be destroyed to build a summer home for the emperor. Through Pacha’s endlessly selfless and loyal behavior, Kuzco learns that there are other people out there who are in need — and that it’s not all about them.

Being in a position of influence can really get to your head. You can begin to think that you are the only one that matters. As a leader, you must be able to see past the attention people give you in order to tend to those who are attention-deprived.

9. Monsters Inc.: innovation powers your world

In Monsters Inc., Monstropolis is powered by the screams of children. The monsters sneak into the closets and scare the children, bottle their screams, and power the city. In the end, though, the scream loses its power and we are left to wonder what will become of Monstropolis. In the final scene, the monsters are seen sneaking in through closets and making children laugh. It turns out that laughs are more powerful than screams.

The world is constantly, relentless changing. Leaders must have the imagination and audacity to adapt. Innovation is everything. If you can’t improve, you’re moving backwards. Always be on the search for the next big thing to power your world.

10. Finding Nemo: nothing can stop you from finding what is most precious to you

Marlin loses his only son, Nemo, and searches through the entire ocean to find him. He takes on sharks, swims through a field of jellyfish, and gets swallowed by a whale. Nothing deters him. He stops at nothing to find what matters most to him.

Leaders have the same sort of determination for their goals. The dream of a great leader can only be denied by an encounter with death. There is no danger too grave, no price too high. A leader knows what matters and pursues it relentlessly.

11. The Incredibles: don’t let the mediocre silence your awesomeness

The Incredibles are a family of superheroes living in a city where heroes are shunned. They must constantly work to keep their secret identities and hide their superpowers. Then, a villain threatens humanity and they must come out of hiding. In the end, they redeem the glory they once had and become more comfortable with who they are.

The world is full of mediocrity. And average, ordinary, cynical people will try to bring you down to their level and keep you from reaching your full potential. Do not listen to them. They are just jealous of your courage and initiative. Be amazing… even when those around you criticize you for it. A time will come when they will need the great gift in you that they tried so hard to suppress. You are awesome. Act like it.

12. Tangled: to make your dreams come true, you’ve got to leave your tower

Rapunzel dreams her entire life of leaving your tower and finding the origin of the floating lights in the sky. But, alas, time goes by and everyday’s the same routine… until she decides to leave her tower. Once she places her foot on the ground, she can’t get enough of the freedom and forges ahead in pursuit of her dream.

Your tower is your comfort zone. It is your place of safety and complacency. It’s not fulfilling, but it’s comfortable. It’s easy. Leaders don’t settle for the easy way—they push themselves into discomfort in pursuit of their dreams. Leave your tower and watch your dreams unfold.

What’s your favorite Disney movie? What life lessons have you gleaned from it? Let us know in the comments below.

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