By Tim Hayes

When “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” debuted in 1937, Walt Disney stunned Hollywood and began his ascent to conquer the world with entertainment that no one had seen or experienced before.

An unqualified success, the 80-minute film – scoffed at by outsiders during its production as “Disney’s Folly” – knocked other studios on their collective ears, who were left to scramble in pursuit of their own equally creative responses.  A quest that no one seriously achieved until many decades later.

Yet the story behind the story is always more interesting to me.  And in Walt Disney’s case, the backstory of “Snow White” carried a higher level of drama, conflict, and intrigue than some old Queen and a hired Huntsman chasing a flighty teenaged princess through the woods with a knife.

Take the “sweatbox,” for instance.  In the early days of the Disney studio, in a cramped office, Walt would review the day’s animation production in an even more cramped cubbyhole – not much bigger than a closet – that his animators soon dubbed the sweatbox.  That moniker fit, not only because it could get pretty close in there, with three or four employees baking in the California sun plus a large projector throwing off waves of heat, but the name really stuck because of how much Walt made those poor guys perspire with his witheringly devastating comments.

The goal with Walt was to have him say nothing at all.  Because his principal purpose in the sweatbox was to criticize, challenge, and confront.  All done with a singular purpose: To make his films the absolute best product possible. 

When he decided to graduate from seven-minute animated shorts to the first animated full-length feature film, the studio had moved into a larger facility, but the sweatbox only got more uncomfortable.  No one could contest Walt’s rationale, nor the superior quality of the storytelling and technical execution in his films that resulted.  But, at the same time, it took a toll on his craftsmen who, during the production of “Bambi,” would whisper to each other when Walt entered the animation building, “Man is in the forest” – a line in the movie that signaled impending danger to the animals.

I spotted a story online the other day quoting Yishan Wong, a former employee of Facebook, that reminded me of the Disney approach to leading people.  In describing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Wong says:

“In my study of business leaders, I’ve yet to come across one who was considered ‘great’ who didn’t also have a significant body count of ex-employees claiming that they were autocratic and mean.  Examples include Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison.  My theory is that the level of personal demanding-ness needed to drive a global enterprise to a position of world-changing leadership is one that can be too much for some people.  Such leaders don’t tend to provide much in the way of emotional coddling, and Mark Zuckerberg is like that.”

Run down that list.  Zuckerberg, Welch, Jobs, Gates, Ellison, Disney.  There’s no denying that leading by fiat and fear works, yet I wonder why, in order to lift people to such heights, some leaders feels they must crush those same people to such depths.  Every person deserves respect, which makes it right.  People who feel valued are better producers, which makes it smart.

Personally, I love to be challenged.  I work best when the clock is ticking and I’m painted into a corner.  But if I have to worry about being humiliated, abused, or discarded in the process, that’s quite another story.  

So to all once and future leaders, I challenge you to consider:

Can encouragement supplant belittlement?

Can the same end be achieved through better interpersonal communication? 

Can you attain your vision and maintain your humanity? 

Do the means to an end really need to be so mean?

Copyright 2012 Transverse Park Productions, LLC