IMAGINEER EISNER ON CREATIVE LEADERSHIP
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(FORTUNE Magazine) – With childlike enthusiasm, Michael Eisner outlines a pet project over a bowl of frozen yogurt in the Walt Disney Studios commissary. He intends to combine a retail store selling Disney doodads with a restaurant serving healthy, low- cholesterol food. The cuisine, he gushes, will be ''fun, exciting, entertaining, and wonderful!'' Then he admits that the concept doesn't tie in with Disney's other businesses and that most of his associates don't see much virtue in the plan. In a resigned voice he adds, ''I've been driving everybody crazy.'' Eisner is a CEO who is more hands-on than Mother Teresa. His chief duty at Disney is to lead creatively, to be a thinker, inventor, and cheerleader for new ideas -- in founder Walt's own words, to be an Imagineer. Says Eisner: ''Every CEO has to spend an enormous amount of time shuffling papers. The question is, how much of your time can you leave free to think about ideas? To me the pursuit of ideas is the only thing that matters. You can always find capable people to do almost everything else.'' He uses a number of tactics to encourage, even induce, creativity in others. To come up with the layout for Euro Disneyland he called a meeting of a dozen of the world's most respected architects and had them brainstorm in a wildly creative session that became so heated, two of the architects began shoving each other and almost came to blows. ''I'll use meetings, company anniversaries, anything to create some kind of catalyst to get us all going,'' says Eisner. He believes he must give his people free rein if he hopes to foster an entrepreneurial spirit within such a financially disciplined corporation. As shepherd of the Disney flock, Eisner tries to promote a family-like camaraderie among his top managers. In late September he asked each division head to perform a skit for the anniversary dinner celebrating the team's first five years at the company. The skits peppered Eisner and President Frank Wells with barbed jokes about their management styles and big paychecks. At the end of this roast, instead of giving tit for tat, Eisner, Wells, Roy Disney, and their wives danced out onto the stage and performed a raucous kick line while booming out their spoof of ''We Are the World.'' Befitting a former English major at Denison University in Ohio who once had a passion for writing plays, Eisner thinks in terms of story lines. He applies that thinking to all the company's activities, whether he is building a $200 million hotel or a $10 million theme park attraction. ''We ask, 'What is the story we want to tell when people walk into one of our new buildings? What are they going to feel? What is going to happen next? And how will it end?' '' He is using movie storyboards to create a chronology and schedule for the construction of his Colorado vacation home. The ideas that grab him -- and often he can't remember if they are his own or embellishments of someone else's -- are those that surprise him and tease his imagination. He disdains ideas that seem too familiar. On the other hand, for an idea to succeed at Disney it can't be so avant-garde that it ceases to be commercial. The Making of Me attraction in Epcot Center's new Wonders of Life pavilion, which features footage of the birth of a baby, had its genesis in Eisner's own emotionally charged experiences at the delivery of his three sons. His tastes are mainstream and all-American, combined with a gut instinct for what new flavor might be popular next. Appropriately for the chief of America's leading peddler of wholesome entertainment, Eisner sees his family as his inspiration. He follows the tastes, interests, and activities of his children with the vigilance of a police-beat reporter. His wife, Jane, often screens his ideas. Says he: ''98.5% of my ideas revolve around things that we are both involved in. With the stuff that is really on the edge, I will ask her if I'm crazy. Of course she usually thinks I am.''