Dean’s Reflection on Disney

Disney Institute

Harry Potter and Walt Disney are two of my favorite wizards. Where visiting Harry requires evaporation at the train station or catching an owl shuttle, Walt can be seen at the movies, toy shop, radio, TV and recently at Villanova’s Bartley Hall. To be clear, it was Walt’s legacy and his spirit that visited campus as Walt is engaged elsewhere.

Both Harry and Walt are famous for their enduring magic. While Harry’s adventures live on in our imaginations, Walt touched our hearts through animated characters and the beautiful stories he brought to life. Walt endures through our childhood memories and, thanks to his brilliant foresight, through the memories of many generations of children to come. It is Walt’s foresight rather than his magic that captures my imagination today.

When we visit Disney World or enjoy a Disney cruise we are immersed in a magical experience facilitated by Disney cast members. Not employees, cast members. Unlike Harry, Walt was limited to his human powers and those of the humans he employed to bring magic to Disney customers. We humans tend to be easily distracted by the drama of our own lives, so even the best employees slip out of character at various points during the workday. Hence the Disney notion of cast member rather than employee.

Walt envisioned his Magic Kingdom as a gigantic stage upon which beautiful stories were told every minute of every day. Organizationally, the real magic is in the invisible infrastructure built to support the never-ending fairy tales. Walt’s “Disney magic” is the result of highly focused and reinforced human discipline along with a boatload of imagination, advanced technology and spectacular sets and costumes. It is the discipline that impresses me.

Before attending the Disney Institute, I imagined that lovely smiling Disney employees simply enjoyed spending their days surrounded by spectacular characters and decorations. I failed to imagine tired and cranky customers, sore feet and the fatigue of being surrounded by too many people all day long. Add to that the boredom of routine and stresses of everyday life – well, what was I thinking?

If university faculty and staff fall out of character from time to time, imagine what a Disney ride attendant must feel like at the end of each day. As a member of the Disney cast, Ms. Ride Attendant is expected to look and act joyful whenever she is on stage. Are all Disney cast members superhuman? No, but their work environment certainly is magic.

Can a world-class university become magical?  As I celebrate my first anniversary at Villanova I can attest that this university has its own type of magic. Like Disney, we articulate and respect the values and culture upon which the university was built.  Disney cast members are selected for their aptitude toward values of openness, respect, courage, honesty, integrity and diversity. I see those same values supported at Villanova every time I walk across campus, chat with a student or faculty member or grab a cup of coffee at Holy Grounds.

Disney tells us that though the vision may change over time, an organization’s values are the bedrock of its culture. Values do not change. Like Disney, Villanova’s culture is built upon shared values, behaviors, traditions and symbols. Through Disney, I realized that Villanova’s culture is also shared through story telling and reinforced by our beautiful campus and the care we take in fostering enduring traits in our students.  Do Villanova employees see themselves as cast members? Perhaps not, but we are on the right path.

The Disney Institute focused on leadership through stewardship of present and future organizational values. Walt Disney was a wizard with a passion for telling stories that would reach across generations of children. “Every leader leaves a legacy, which is the aggregate of the story he or she told over time.” Aren’t we fortunate to have a professional storyteller at our helm?