29 August 2013

Leadership, civility, and the magic of Disney

I spent part of my summer vacation immersing myself in the wisdom and, yes, the magic of Disney! I read and studied numerous books on the topic and loved every minute of it. According to its official website, the Disney Institute is “the professional development arm of The Walt Disney Company,” and it offers solutions that “engage organizations in time-tested best practices, sound methodologies, and real-life business lessons that facilitate corporate culture change.”

I have long been intrigued with the lessons from Disney. As a professor, student, and scholar of leadership, I read widely and deeply on the topic. There are many incredible writers and thought leaders on leadership, and I appreciate each and every one of them, but of the many Disney books I read this summer, one stands out as a favorite: Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies From a Life at Disney, by Lee Cockerell (2008), former executive vice president of operations at Walt Disney World Resort. Here are some of the lessons I learned from Cockerell, viewed through the lens of civility in academe.

Effective leadership is essential for individual and organizational excellence. It promotes faculty and student satisfaction, a dynamic esprit de corps, and positive recruitment and retention. Leadership is not discreetly synonymous with titles, positions, or pay grades but, rather, is broadly defined and, ultimately, everyone’s responsibility. Whether we are formal or informal leaders, each of us, according to Cockerell, “must do what has to be done, when it has to be done, in the way it should be done, whether [we] like it or not” (p. 15). It means making the right things happen by making sound decisions and bringing out the best in others. This type of leadership is available to—and should be expected—of everyone, because it makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary organizations.

Genuine and meaningful inclusion is a critical hallmark of effective leadership. The Disney Institute utilizes the RAVE approach to inclusion. RAVE stands for Respect, Appreciate, and Value Everyone. What an amazing concept, and so civility-like! In workplaces where everyone matters and where each person knows and experiences it, great leadership is in full bloom. Leaders who truly listen; who communicate clearly, directly and honestly; and who advocate for all members of the campus community are rock stars among rock stars. As my students often say to me, “Dr. Clark, if we all follow the Golden Rule [which means to treat people as you wish to be treated], it will go a long way in helping people feel special and respected.” By implementing the RAVE approach to inclusion, new faculty members and students will flock to your school, and current ones will not want to leave. In an academic environment where everyone matters, everyone feels valued and appreciated to his or her very core.

Disney also recognizes the value of ARE—Appreciation, Recognition, and Encouragement—as powerful motivators for employee achievement and success. The same can be said for faculty members and students. When leaders—and, I might add, everyone—are extravagant with ARE, when they spread it far and wide, the impact can be remarkable and transforming. On the other hand, in the absence of ARE, performance is halfhearted, effort is mediocre, and satisfaction wanes. Everyone enjoys being recognized for his or her achievements and accomplishments. Consequently, leaders who are generous with showing ARE demonstrate first-rate leadership skills and aptitude.

Creating a culture and academic environment that welcomes creativity, embraces ingenuity, and allows for flexibility gives that workplace an incredible leg up. Disney advances the belief that organizations must make their people their special brand. In other words, people matter to the success of any organization.

As academic leaders seek to hire the best faculty candidates, certain skills must be considered: teaching, clinical (in the case of nursing), and scholarly competence; technological ability; aptitude for innovation; leadership skills; and an unwavering capacity to get along with others. Further, current faculty members and select students need to be involved in the interviewing and selection process. Key questions must be asked to vet the candidate in terms of level of civility, ability to get along with others, capacity to collaborate, and potential as a trusted and valued colleague. I have adapted from Cipriano (2011) two legally acceptable questions—not in conflict, for example, with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)— that get to the root of these essential traits:
  1. In what areas do you have the least amount of patience in working with colleagues? How do you deal with your impatience? Give examples. 
  2. If we asked your colleagues to describe your strengths and weaknesses in the areas of collaboration and communication with others (students, colleagues, administration), what would they say? Give examples. 
Every member of the campus community must be fully steeped in the vision, mission, and shared values of the college or university. More importantly, each person must understand the meaning of these statements and live them to the fullest. We are all role models. For better or worse, first impressions matter, and we have scant time to make a positive impression. In fact, first impressions are often made at lightning speed.

During the precious nanoseconds that we meet someone for the first time, he or she registers myriad impressions about us. Many impressions are made in a matter of seconds (and often kept). Therefore, it’s critically important to make a positive, professional impression. In my book Creating & Sustaining Civility in Nursing Education, I identify some common characteristics of civil role modeling. They include being contemplative and humble, respectful, collegial and empowering, trustworthy and honest, responsible and accountable, self-assured without being self-important, and engaging in healthy stress management strategies.

Great leaders are always in learning mode. They learn by walking around, conversing with others, and seeking to understand what’s happening on the ground level of the organization. They spend significant time with faculty and students, engage in meaningful conversations, and constantly evaluate and seek to improve the culture of the workplace. They try to catch others doing something right and publicly acknowledge those achievements in public forums. They recognize and encourage fresh and new ideas, set high standards for performance, and expect results. They lead by modeling the way, promoting collaboration and problem solving, and fostering a lasting culture of civility and respect. Great leaders know what they stand for, advance the core values of the organization; and live by those values every day. They are respectful, sensitive, and never humiliate anyone. Perhaps most importantly, they make time for relaxation and fun, and generously encourage others to do the same.

Applying these Disney principles is not easy; it takes determination, resolve and, perhaps most of all, strong and effective leadership. It means not taking one’s eye off the ball. It means keeping respect and civility at the center of the academic culture. There is no such thing as a perfect organization, but applying some of the Disney principles to our academic workplaces can result in greater faculty and student satisfaction, reduced turnover and, maybe, just maybe, our work environments can begin to resemble the happiest places on earth!

Cipriano, R. (2011). Facilitating a collegial department in higher education: Strategies for success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Clark, C.M. (2013). Creating & sustaining civility in nursing education, Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International.

Cockerell, L. (2008). Creating magic: 10 common sense leadership strategies from a life at Disney, New York, NY: Doubleday Publishing Group.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.