Robert Iger became the CEO of Disney in 2005, at a time when the iconic brand was struggling. Competition was intense, and the company needed a breath of fresh air and some serious innovation if it was going to survive. Within 15 years, Iger had turned Disney into one of the most respected companies in the world, and its value was five times higher than when he took the reins.
“The Ride of a Lifetime” is not just a memoir of Iger’s life and career. It’s also full of valuable lessons we can all use to be better colleagues, leaders, business owners, partners, and people. The lessons and insights here are universal, whether you’re just starting college, starting a business, or close to retirement.
The business world is full of CEOs who are, if not outright crooks, at least people we wouldn’t want to invite home to dinner. Iger is an exception. He comes across as a good person, a positive thinker who believes that leadership requires courage and a willingness to lift others up, not just ride a golden ticket to a rich retirement. This makes “The Ride of a Lifetime” an inspiring and empowering read that will leave you better by the end.
“The Ride of a Lifetime” is divided into two main parts. Part I details the first half of Iger’s career, starting at the bottom rung of the ladder at the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Iger weaves important lessons throughout this narrative while he reflects on the people, jobs, and lessons that shaped the leader he became.
For example, Iger has woken early since he began his career. Waking early is just one productive habit of successful people, and Iger believes strongly that having this time to yourself is essential for creative thinking and working through problems in a less pressured environment. He is certain he’d be less productive if he didn’t have that time to himself each morning.
One of the most inspiring lessons from the first part of the book is the realization that Iger started from nothing. He began his career at an entry-level position at ABC and eventually worked his way up to CEO of Disney (which now owns ABC). Iger was able to do this because he learned from his mistakes and he wasn’t afraid to learn from others to become better himself.
The second half of the book outlines Iger’s tenure at Disney. The stakes are higher, the deals are bigger, and the cost of failure is more profound, but through it all Iger still lives and works by the simple principles he’s relied on throughout his life. He’s decent and fair, he’s honest, he keeps his promises, and he never lets his ego get in the way of admitting what he doesn’t know.
In Part II, you get a behind-the-scenes look at how Iger and his team navigated hugely important deals, including acquiring Marvel and Lucasfilm. Here you get to see another of Iger’s leadership principles in action repeatedly: Innovate or die. Without his vision, courage, and willingness to embrace new ideas and technology, Disney wouldn’t be the media giant it is today.
Iger’s book is not set up to be a “how to” leadership manual. It’s not one you can quickly skim and, at a glance, get a sense of the lessons you’re supposed to learn. You can refer to the appendix for a rundown on Iger’s leadership principles, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if that’s all you read from the book.
“The Ride of a Lifetime” is written as a memoir, and the lessons and insights are woven into the narrative seamlessly. Iger is an excellent writer, and his stories are rich and engaging, so you’ll have no trouble making it through to the end.
Throughout the book, Iger outlines 10 principles he believes are necessary to true leadership: optimism, courage, focus, decisiveness, curiosity, fairness, thoughtfulness, authenticity, the relentless pursuit of perfection, and integrity. Through his stories, you see examples of these principles in action.
Iger makes an important distinction when it comes to the pursuit of perfection. By this he doesn’t mean “pursue perfection at all costs.” He means we need to refuse to accept mediocrity or accept something as “good enough” when we know it really isn’t. He means pushing back against thinking traps like, “There’s not enough time to make this better,” or “I don’t have the energy to fix this mistake.” These traps try to convince you that “good enough” is good enough when it really isn’t.
Iger’s integrity is evident throughout the book, and there have been plenty of times when sticking to his values came at a significant cost. But he stresses time and again that you can’t put a price on your integrity. Do that, and you’ll be left with nothing.
Your integrity also has to be present in every decision you make. One of my favorite lines from the book comes from the introduction, where Iger discusses this concept. He says, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” By this he means that your every action and decision — from the smallest to the largest — should be guided by the same set of values.
Another lesson Iger shares is the importance of owning up to your mistakes. You’ll be more respected and trusted by the people you work with if you’re willing to admit when you’ve messed up.
There are plenty of other valuable lessons to learn: how to give feedback to others honestly and fairly so that everyone improves, how to overcome the fear of failure, why it’s essential to share success and praise with those who deserve it on your team, why you should never sugarcoat bad news or negative feedback, and much more.
On every page, these lessons are not preached but shown through Iger’s real-life examples.
I loved “The Ride of a Lifetime” for several reasons.
First, I’ve read my fair share of business memoirs. Although many of them contain plenty of valuable lessons, all too often the writing is stilted, dry, or even a bit pompous. Many times, the writer’s ego is more evident than the lessons they might be trying to convey. Sometimes, it can be hard for readers who didn’t go to Ivy League business school to see themselves in these larger-than-life leaders.
That’s not the case here. Iger’s story starts from the ground up — something most of us can relate to. His story proves it’s entirely possible to create a successful life for yourself if you’re willing to work hard and be true to yourself.
What makes Iger’s book stand out is its honesty. Iger’s voice is authentic and true, and he’s not afraid to share his mistakes, his failures, and the lessons he learned from falling flat on his face. Case in point: If you’re old enough to remember the 1990 show “Cop Rock,” then you should know it was Iger who gave the green light to that extraordinarily bad series. However, his optimism and willingness to take risks is evident even here, when he admits they tried something big that didn’t work. He says, “I’d much rather take big risks and sometimes fail than not take risks at all.”
At its center, this book illustrates the importance of knowing your own values and using those values to guide your decisions every day, especially during times of crisis or failure. The lessons here teach you how to live with less fear, have more confidence, practice more empathy, and live more courageously.
You can use Iger’s example to be a better colleague by sharing praise where praise is due and not hogging the spotlight. You can use his examples to be a better boss by trusting the people on your team and inspiring them to do their best work. You can use Iger’s lessons to be a better business owner by always keeping your word and telling people, honestly and directly, how things are. In short, Iger’s book has something valuable to offer everyone regardless of the career path you’re on.
We can all learn a lot from Robert Iger’s leadership because he lives and works with integrity, empathy, and a willingness to face difficult things without fear. He’s the type of leader people want to follow — someone who inspires others to do their best work. No matter your career path, you can learn a lot from the stories and lessons found here. The book is candid, thoughtful, and definitely worth your time.
What about this book resonates with you?