Creating Magic Book Summary: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney

by Accessory To Success December 23, 2020

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Creating Magic Book Summary: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney

Main Takeaway

Leaders should focus on treating employees well and acknowledging their contributions because they are the reason for an organization’s success. In addition, ideas for improvement should be gathered from other industries, competitors and employees at all levels of the company. So says Lee Cockerell in Creating Magic a wonderful book on leadership.

What You Will Learn

  • Leaders and managers are not the same thing, and all managers should strive to be leaders
  • Employees do their best work when they feel recognized, appreciated and valued
  • Leaders should listen to ideas from all levels of the company with emphasis on listening to front line workers
  • Ideas can come from anywhere, and leaders should always be looking for new ideas to improve processes
  • Treat all employees with respect
  • Offer any support possible to employees
  • Find ways to support customers
  • Always seek out ways to improve as a leader
  • Look everywhere for ideas to improve

The Book Summary

As Vice President of Operations for Walt Disney World for over a decade, Lee Cockerell has honed his leadership skills and shares his accumulated knowledge in Creating Magic. While Cockerell has achieved significant corporate success, he also had many failures. Through these failures, Cockerell learned how to improve and avoid or minimize failures in the future. For more on this definitely read the book GRIT.


One of the most important keys to a leader’s success is treating team members with respect and giving them support and opportunities. One way managers can offer support is to make sure that organizational structure is properly designed and implemented. Leaders also need to actively seek out new ideas and to constantly reevaluate processes.

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The first part of Creating Magic chronicles Cockerell’s journey to Walt Disney World, including all the failures and bumps that Cockerell experienced along the way. Before he began working for Disney, Cockerell worked his way up from banquet hall server to the Food and Beverage Director at Marriott.

While learning how to manage people, a disgruntled employee hit him on the head with a beer bottle. Another time, he was hit on the head with a clipboard. These experiences were turning points, and Cockerell began working to improve his leadership style to better support his direct reports. Much more on this can be found in the legendary book High Output Management.

Most of Cockerell’s success in leadership is because he recognizes that the people are valuable. When cast members feel supported, they are able to support the guests with Disney’s world famous customer service. Cockerell encourages a philosophy thatif a guest requests something that would take less than five minutes, it should be done.

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An example could be the hotel guest who forgot his phone charger, and the Disney team member went to the store to buy him a new phone charger. This is just one example of many that Cockerall provides to show how successful customer service can look when employees feel supported. The best book about going above and beyond for customers I know of is Give'em the Pickle! by Bob Farrell

One way to help team members feel supported is to acknowledge when each person does a good job. Cockerell shared that he writes hand-written thank-you cards daily for team members who have exceeded customer service. Each thank-you card is accompanied with a pin -- some display Mickey Mouse, some display encouraging words -- that many employees wear on their costumes and uniforms.

Another way Cockerell recommends showing how much employees are appreciated is to make a note to remember their names and personal details, to attend any event that a manager is invited to, and to listen to any ideas or problems that individual has. Cockerell also thanks employees’ families, and tries to involve them at every opportunity.

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Front line workers often have the most important insight to improve operational processes, but managers can sometimes fail to treat front line workers with respect. Creating Magic is filled with captivating examples.

One of these examples that illustrates how Cockerell learned this lesson was when one of the Disney hotels stopped providing sewing kits housed in ornate tins in the rooms. The guests quickly let hotel management know that they were displeased with the new lack of sewing kits, and the issue was rectified.

This could have been avoided if the housekeepers had been asked whether the sewing kits were left in the rooms or not. Employees at all levels have valuable ideas that are worth listening to and looking into implementing.

When determining whether an idea should be implemented or not, Cockerell recommends a simple test. There are two kinds of ideas -- reversible ideas and irreversible ideas. If an idea is reversible, it can be tested. Then, if it fails, it can be changed back.

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When he suggested changes in the hotels that received some resistance, Cockerell argued that it could be piloted in one hotel and change it back to the way it was if unsuccessful. His proposed change was so successful that the hotel ended up not following through and purchasing a million dollar washing machine.

Successful leaders are always learning, and always looking for new ideas. This can be in the same industry as well as in different industries. Once, when Cockerell was renting a car, he wondered if it was possible to use some of the same processes in Disney hotel check-ins. Cockerell recommends taking field trips to competitors to see if there is anything to learn there. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, is told to have done the same thing in the book Made In America.

Another way Cockerell recommends learning is to read books, newspapers, and to keep up with technology. In Cockerell’s opinion, a leader who is not actively seeking new ideas or technologies to implement is a leader who will fall behind.

Most of Cockerell’s successful leadership strategies begin and end with treating everyone with respect, acknowledging employees’ achievements, and thanking employees for their help. This also means listening and implementing ideas from people at all levels of the organization. To keep up with a constantly changing world, leaders in any organization should be actively seeking out ideas to improve. These are the methods Lee Cockerell used to create magic.

About The Author

As the Walt Disney World Executive Vice President of Operations for 10 years, Lee Cockerell was responsible for 40,000 employees as well as theme parks and resort hotels. Before his time as Vice President of Operations, Cockerell served as Director of Food and Beverage at Marriott, and as the Vice President of Resorts for Disneyland Paris. During his tenure at Walt Disney World, Cockerell instituted the Disney Great Leader Strategies, and developed strategies that are now taught at the Disney Institute.

After retiring from Disney, Cockerell has written two books, and is the founder and Chief Learning Officer at the Cockerell Academy. Cockerell Academy offers online training pulled from Cockerell’s experiences at Hilton, Marriott, and Disney. Courses offered include customer service, career advancement, time management, and leadership.

He has also used his leadership expertise for charity as the Chairman of the Board of Heart of Florida United Way as well as serving on the boards of The Culinary Institute of America, the Production and Operations Management Society, and Reptilia. He has also served as Chairman of the Board for the Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism and Public Service for the state of Florida. Cockerell left college to serve in the United States Army, and advocates lifelong learning.

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