Book Review: The Ride of a Lifetime (by Robert Iger)


The leadership components of this life story are enlightening and applicable.

But what I picked up this book to learn was in-depth insight into managing the creative process, negotiating difficult personalities, and creating a unique creative culture at Disney and subsumed companies. Although the book told a coherent, clear storyline with interesting vignettes, it ultimately glossed over key moments in the general sense, rather than diving deep and mining their emotions. Some examples:

1.) Characters -- A story involves interesting personalities and the dynamics between them. Some of them -- like Steve Jobs -- required no introduction, but others did, and they often popped into Bob Iger's story without the proper introduction or backstory. He spends a lot of time on his father, and later his most successful hires, like Alan Horn, but I wanted to know more about his wife, his closest colleagues, John Lasseter, and his relationship with Disney's lifeblood animators. Give them a name and a face for us! Where do they come from, and how did they influence you? The most emotional scene with the most well-painted character -- Roone -- touched me not because Roone was dying, but because of all they had been through together. Roone's relentless pursuit of perfection, and his extravagance in getting there, provided memorable scene after memorable scene, and it was because Bob described his character and their shared journey -- from the early day on-calls to the Olympics to the New Year's 2000 coverage -- so deeply, through so many moments. But then "highly confidential" dynamics like the John Lasseter relationship were handled within a single paragraph, with no insight into John's background or their shared experiences. I found myself mixing up all the Toms, Johns, and Michaels as the book went on, because their motivations, character quirks, and backgrounds hadn't distinguished them in my mind. Much of what has made Disney such a well-known brand in storytelling is its characters. I expected more complete characters.

2.) Depth -- Disney is, at its heart, a creative company. Their acquisitions, like Pixar and Marvel, are also creative companies. Show us more of the creative side! What makes their artists and animators tick, and how do you manage creative souls into a large corporate culture? The book goes into some of the challenges, especially early on with the ABC show ideas (Twin Peaks et al), but as the story continues, it increasingly takes a high bird's-eye view, rather than a deep-down look in the trenches with the creative minds. It captivated me discussing George Lucas' struggles with creative control, including meetings on the script, but many of the later events came from the media, like interviews, and few were dramatized in-scene, moment-by-moment conflict, as was so skillfully done in the Olympic coverage. How did Disney animators and creative teams handle the new IP? What were their storytelling strategies? What kinds of challenges cropped up? I don't want to hear that "fans loved it" or that Iron Giant 2 was grossing $75 million (or however much) at the box office; what's of interest is the blood, sweat, and tears that go into such a creative endeavor, and how Bob Iger managed a lot of talented egos, bridging the past to the future. What matters is the journey, not the result.

3.) Emotion -- The opening scene -- Disneyland Shanghai's opening and the Pulse shooting and alligator attack -- captivated me because of the difficult phone conversation the author describes, and how his wife supports him through that moment. The final conversation with Roone also elicited feeling, because of what the two had been through, and how close the author described their relationship. The rest of the book didn't deliver those moments on a consistent basis. Descriptions of potentially emotional moments were couched too much in generals and facts, like Steve's confidance of cancer being viewed through the lens of the impending deadline, counting down minutes to a public announcement, or John Lasseter's departure. They were described too much in the general sense, as difficult moments, without diving into the specifics of what made them so complicated and emotional for the individuals involved. As a result, it was hard to grasp the nature of the inner conflict, and feel the storyteller's emotion.

Make no mistake: The book had meaningful conflicts -- like shareholder votes and phone calls -- but they didn't generate as much emotional payoff in me because they didn't have the buildup, depth, or detail into what was motivating or driving each individual in the battle. It's hard to relate to people when they haven't received the introduction they deserve, but more than anything, I wanted to feel more emotion from happenings and events, rather than the cool, calm, collected recap: "This happened, then that happened" or the common "That was difficult, but after months of work, we persevered" type of narrative.

I enjoyed the story and devoured it quickly, but ultimately came away unsatisfied with how little I knew about the people involved, or their motivations.

Written by
Simon Shields