Only two people have led The Walt Disney Company since Michael Eisner’s un-ceremonial resignation in 2005.
Now, thanks to a new CNBC report, we just confirmed an open secret in Disney circles.
Current and former Disney CEOs Bob Chapek and Bob Iger have experienced a falling out, and their schism has left Disney leadership in turmoil.
So, what caused the rift between Iger and Chapek? And what have we learned about the entire affair?
Despite What the Song Says, Letting Go Is Hard
The worst part of helping a child ride a bike is for a parent to decide when to let go.
Every fiber of your being tells you to protect your child as long as possible. Eventually, you must trust them to steer the bike on their own, though.
That thought process applies to many mentor/protégé relationships.
Even the best leaders worry that they aren’t being protective enough, just as they simultaneously fear they’re being overprotective.
I suspect that much of what we’re about to discuss circles back to that simple truth about teaching and delegation.
Let’s return to just before the pandemic’s start to remember what has transpired.
— CNBC (@CNBC) February 25, 2020
On February 25th2020, Bob Iger suddenly announced his retirement and his successor’s identity.
Yes, that happened only 25 months ago, although the whole thing admittedly feels like dog years.
Some speculated at the time that Iger ceded the job to Chapek as a matter of protecting a legacy.
Bob Chapek “is going to be running the company and running the day-to-day businesses. I have one direct report and that’s Bob,” outgoing Disney CEO Bob Iger says, addressing the confusion on who reports to who. pic.twitter.com/i07TICgQzZ
— CNBC (@CNBC) February 25, 2020
Iger had achieved so much at Disney. Understandably, he may not have wanted fans to remember him as the person who struggled at the end due to the pandemic.
Alternatively, others wondered whether Iger knew that he didn’t have it in him at 69 years old.
He may have believed Disney needed someone younger to overcome the challenges of closed sports venues, movie theaters, and theme parks.
In fact, I’ve frequently referred to Chapek as a wartime consigliere, which admittedly feels distasteful in the light of current events.
The underlying philosophy is that Disney needs a leader who can make hard choices that protect the business.
During Iger’s tenure, he faced similar struggles early on. However, his bold acquisition of Pixar secured the company.
Later purchases like Marvel, BAMTech, Fox, and Star Wars similarly paid massive dividends.
In short, Iger proved wildly effective in non-crisis situations.
Crisis Is Our Brand
The next month where Bob Chapek isn’t facing a crisis will be the first. All Disney theme parks closed within the dude’s first month on the job.
As far as trials by fire go, it’s challenging to imagine a larger one.
Seemingly overnight, Disney lost most of its revenue streams.
This reversal of fortune happened the year after Disney had assumed $71 billion in debt for Fox.
Imagine buying a new car, a new house, and a new boat right before losing your job. That’s the closest analogue here.
Disney had bills to pay and no cash to pay them. Enter Bob Chapek, the person who hates the term “bean counter.”
That’s the most accurate description for Disney’s CEO, though, and I don’t mean it as an insult.
This leader cares about the bottom line more than anything else. Given Disney’s recent dire financial straits, it needed a budget-obsessed leader to fix the books.
Iger knew this at some point, as he commented on March 11th2020: “I can’t think of a better person to succeed me in this role.”
A month later, Iger sang a different tune, possibly with the best of intentions.
Remember that the former CEO still held the title of Chairperson of the Board of Directors at Disney.
I suspect he wanted to reassure everyone that his company would be fine.
“A crisis of this magnitude, and its impact on Disney, would necessarily result in my actively helping Bob [Chapek] and the company contend with it, particularly since I ran the company for 15 years!”
Disney’s former CEO let people know that he was back in charge. Of course, that…was news to Chapek.
The new CEO had neither asked for this statement of support nor liked its intent. A schism formed.
An Awkward 20 Months
When Iger spoke to the New York Times, he had 20 months remaining on his Disney contract.
From reports that came out afterward, the two leaders never saw eye to eye afterward.
In fact, Chapek closed ranks, choosing loyalists he knew he could trust, ones who wouldn’t report straight back to Iger.
Disney’s most successful leader since the days of Walt and Roy found himself shut out of daily operations.
Technically, Chapek still reported to Iger, the Chairperson of the Board. Still, their relationship grew icy after Iger’s unsolicited remarks.
The CNBC article suggests that “Chapek was furious when he saw the (New York Times) story.”
Not coincidentally, Disney named Chapek to the Board of Directors only 72 hours later.
In short, the board mollified its disgruntled CEO with more money and a promotion.
From all appearances, Chapek never forgave Iger, though. In fact, CNBC’s reporter recounts anecdotes from Iger’s self-thrown going-away party.
According to this story, Chapek and Iger barely acknowledged one another, which must have been awkward for the dozens of other Disney employees there.
Of course, the timing of the CNBC article appears somewhat suspect as well. But, yes, Disney just suffered through a brutal 10-day period of negative headlines.
In fact, one person went on record in describing it as “the worst week they’ve ever had working at the company.” And I kinda believe them.
Will the Two People Make Amendments?
The conspiracy theorist in me wonders whether Iger has a hand in this piece as a means of publicly distancing himself from Chapek.
As a politician by nature, Iger can read the tea leaves better than the rest of us. So, he may be wondering whether Chapek survives the latest public snafus.
For his part, Chapek apparently views the shadow of Iger as somewhat oppressive.
No matter what Chapek does, he always competes with Iger’s voluminous list of accomplishments.
As a reminder, many Wall Street analysts consider Iger the greatest CEO in history…or, at the very least, the 21St century.
We’re discussing a timeframe that includes Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Reed Hastings. How could anyone compete with that?
So, to an extent, Chapek isn’t fighting with Iger so much as he is Iger’s reputation.
While Iger is off enjoying retirement, Chapek is probably thinking about his former boss several times a day.
The whole thing reminds me of a Danny Thomas joke from before I was alive, the “keep your dang jack” anecdote.
I struggled to envision a scenario where they make amends until such a time as Chapek has proven himself a worthy successor to Iger.
Friends, I think I’m one of the most positive people on the internet when it comes to Bob Chapek.
I’ll still state emphatically that we have a LONG way to go for that to happen.
The real cause of the rift here is that Bob Chapek isn’t Bob Iger, and he knows it.
Feature Image: Disney