Leadership and Power at Disneyland

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Disneyland is a well-known entertaining theme park of the Walt Disney Company, which is sometimes regarded as “the happiest place on Earth”. At the heart of its success lies the existence of leadership and power. This paper therefore aims to critically reflect on how leadership and power originate and exist at Disneyland by applying different leadership approaches and perspectives. This paper is structured into three main parts. The first starts by looking at leadership from an individual perspective; determining the characteristics and behaviours of the leaders at Disneyland. In this perspective, power is considered to be the possession of the leaders. The view of leadership will then be extended to an organisational level whereby the power is enacted through the formal relationship between the leaders and followers whilst it is also embedded within the social system at Disneyland. Finally, leadership is viewed in a social context that goes beyond the boundary of an organisation. The power in the societal perspective is enacted through norms and social expectations.

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Leadership from an individual perspective

There are many ways in which the concept of leadership can be described as Stogdill (1974) argued that the definitions of leadership seems to be endless. Despite different points of view about leadership, Northouse (2013) proposed a framework in which leadership could be seen as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”. In accordance to this definition, leadership exist at Disneyland since a line of managers had the power to influence their employees in order to achieve the company’s vision and mission. In order to gain insight into the leadership existed in Disneyland, it is important to explore who the leaders are at Disneyland, what characteristics they have and how they influence others to achieve a common goal.

Leadership traits

In the first half of the twentieth century, traits became the main focus of leadership. Many scholars at that time believed that successful leaders possess a set of unique characteristics that makes them different from others (Bass, 1990). The managers at Disneyland are the leaders who possess creativity and determination. First, as it is stated clearly in the mission statement of Walt Disney company: “we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related product in the world” (The Walt Disney Company, 2013), in order to be recruited and work at Disneyland, the managers must be creative and have the perseverance to drive the company towards it goals. Here, it is arguable that the managers are assigned to the position only if they possess the characteristics that were required by the company. The managers at Disneyland also show determination. Determination is the desire to get the job done and includes characteristics such as persistence, dominance and drive ( Northouse, 2013). The executive, Bill Ross shared that “although we focus our attention on profit and loss, day in and day out we can not lose sight of the fact that this is a feeling business and we make our profits from that” (Van Maanen, 1991).

Realising an opportunity of making profit from paying attention to the feeling of customers, the managers at Disneyland determine to achieve company’s goal by imposing rules to direct the behaviours and regulate the emotions of the employees (Reyers, 2007). So for example, both men and women at Disneyland were required to look neat and prim whilst maintaining high spirits by practicing the friendly smile and using courteous phrases (France, 1991). Following the trait approach, we could identify different characteristics of the leaders at Disneyland. However, the trait approach is also criticised for being ambiguous and uncertain as the proposed list of traits seems to be endless. Many researchers such as Stogdill (1974), Lord, Devader and Alliger (1986), Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991), Zaccaro, Kemp, and Bader (2004) presented their lists each with different characteristics (see Appendix ..). This approach also tends to be subjective as it ignores other aspects of leadership such as the social interaction or the acts of the leaders.

Leadership styles

The limitations of the trait approach has given birth to the style approach which focuses on what leaders do and how they act. Although many researches have been conducted to examine the style approach, one of the most significant studies is the work of Douglas Mc Gregor in 1960. Douglas McGregor (1960) believed that leadership strategies are influenced by a leader’s assumption about human nature. He proposed two different theories related to the viewpoint of managers. Theory X managers maintain a fairly negative view on human nature, believing that the average human being is not willing to work, therefore it is necessary to control, direct and even coerce them. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, assume that people are enthusiastic and are willing to achieve objectives to which they are committed. According to McGregor’s work the leaders at Disneyland are the theory X managers since they had to direct and control their employees to perform well at work.

The sense of giving direction is evident as a handbook of rules set by the managers is promulgated within the organisation. So for example, employees must follow the dress codes of the company and always show hospitality with a friendly smile, which might go against their real interest (Van Maanen, 1991). The autocratic leadership of theory X managers at Disneyland could also be affirmed when they closely control their employees by setting up a line of supervisors. Van Maanen (1991) described these supervisors as those who, dressed alike in short-sleeved white shirts and ties with walkie-talkies hitched to their belts, wander about their territories on the lookout for deviations from park procedures and other signs of disorder. The appearance of the supervisors helped to prevent any misconduct from the employees. By imposing rules and arranging a line of supervisors, the managers at Disneyland use the power as a mean to control and gain compliance from their employees. Supported by many studies, the style approach has a great impact on the field of leadership as it shifts our attention away from personality traits to what leaders do. However, it does not show a clear relationship between style and performance outcomes.

Leadership from an organisational perspective

Based on Northouse’s (2014) definition of leadership, it is clear that analysing leadership from an individual perspective would ignore the mutual relationship between the leaders and followers. Therefore, this paper continues by situating leadership within the boundary of an organisation.

Leadership and power – The power of managers

In order to gain the compliance from the followers, the leaders first need to acquire one or more sources of power. French[D1] and Raven (1959) proposed different bases of power available to the leaders which includes: referent, expert, legitimate, reward and coercive. The managers at Disneyland acquire the legitimate power which derive from their position in a formal organisational system. With this power, managers are believed to have the legal-rational authority to impose the rules and influence employees. The managers also had access to the reward system, meaning that they can provide rewards to those who perform well in their job. At Disneyland, a performance-related pay are used so that the better the employees perform, the higher the status and payment they get (Van Maneen, 1991). Coercive power is another source of power available to the managers which is acquired through use of threats and punishments (Northouse, 2013). Employees at Disneyland learn that if they do not follow the rules, they are threatened to be fired. Taking too long a break; not wearing parts of one’s official uniform such as a hat, standard-issue belt, or correct shoes; fraternizing with guests beyond the call of duty; talking back to quarrelsome are often subject to instant and harsh discipline. All these sources of power have enabled the managers at Disneyland to lead the organisation’s members. According to Dahl’s (1957) definition of power, if A has power over B, A can make B do something to the extent that B would not otherwise do. Therefore, the power at Disneyland is relational and influenced by relations of dependency between the managers and their employees. The employees have to follow the managers otherwise they would not get reward or be punished.

Leadership and power- the power embedded in the organisation

It could be seen that although French and Raven’s study provide a clear concept of the sources of power, their point of view tend to focus on the overt and visible form of power. They assume that those who have these sources of power are able to control power. However, not all agree with this view. Foucault (1977) believe that power is central to all of our social relationship, is not a possession of a group or individual, and reaches into the very grain of people, and influences people by enabling the manipulation of attitudes, values and beliefs. He drew upon Jeremy Bentham’s idea of panoptican. Originally a design of a prison, it enabled many prisoners to be seen by a few guards who were in a central tower with views of cells all around it. However the prisoners could not see into the tower, so they would not know if the guards were there or not. The possibility of guards watching meant they would behave themselves- they became self-disciplining. The idea of self-discipline can be found at Disneyland as the employees have to discipline themselves at work due to the possibility of being observed by the supervisors. Supervisors in Tomorrowland are, for example, famous for their tendency of hiding in the bushes above the submarine caves, timing the arrivals and departures of the supposedly fully loaded boats making the eight-minute cruise under the polar icecaps (Van Maneen, 1991). They are regarded by ride operators as sneaks and tricksters out to get them and representative of the dark side of park life. In this circumstance, the employees conform to the ‘norms’ just in case their transgression are observed. The power become more pervasive because it is embedded in the every day routines that are taken for granted.

Leadership from a societal perspective

Having[D2] discussed about who the leaders were and how they used power to influence their employees, however, this paper argued that leadership at Disneyland did not originate from the leaders. Instead leadership is generated by the social power and the acts of both managers and employees are framed by the expectations and interpretation of the society. One major way that these expectations and interpretation are formed was through the Walt Disney’s brand image. The brand image could be defined as ” an identifiable product, service, person, or place augmented in such a way that the buyer or user perceives relevant, unique added values which match their needs most closely” ( De Chernatony & McDonald, 1998). The identifiable product of Disney is the stories with the entertaining cartoon characters such as Micky mouse or Donald Duck which become an icon of the American popular culture and has been widely recognised over the world (Wantasen, n.d).

The perception associated with these happy characters becomes a norm in which people recognise Disneyland as the “happiest place on Earth”. To illustrate this point, Boje (1995) wrote about Disney being the “Tamara-land”- a metaphor highlighting the fact that the meaning of events are shaped by the organisational stories. The so-called storytelling organisations such as Disney has shaped the way the society interpret its image through the delivery of their stories. As a result the, expectations of customers influence the leadership decision of the managers and the emotional display of the employees at Disneyland. The public, for the most part, wants Disneyland employees to play only the roles for which they are hired and costumed. If, for instance, Judy of the Jets is feeling tired, grouchy, or bored, few customers want to know about it. Disneyland employees are expected to be sunny and helpful; and the job, with its limited opportunities for sustained interaction, is designed to support such a stance. Thus, if a ride operator’s behavior drifts noticeably away from the norm, customers are sure to point it out – “why aren’t you smiling?” “What’s wrong with you?” “Having a bad day?” “Did Goofy step on your foot?” Ride operators learn swiftly from the constant hints, glances, glares, and tactful cues sent by their audience what their role in the park is to be and as long as they keep to it, there will be no objections from those passing by (Van Maanen, 1991). Leadership at Disneyland therefore originates from the society and has become a process.

The process starts when the society perceive Disneyland as an entertaining place to visit and in order to meet the customers demand, the managers use their legitimate, reward and coercion power to influence the way the employees deliver the service and finally the employees comply to the managers to gain their benefits such as status or financial rewards. However, employees do not always act to please the managers and customers. The ride operators discover that when they are bright and lively, customers would respond to them in like ways. They assume that most people will react to their little waves and smiles with some affection and joy. When they do not, it can ruin an employee’s day (Van Maneen, 1991). The ill-mannered or unruly guests would then be detested and scorned by the employees. So for example, employees would pay back difficult customers the “seatbelt squeeze”- a rapid cinching-up of a seatbelt so that a deviant customer would be left gasping during the trip, or the “break-toss”- a sudden brake made by the operators bringing the running car to an almost instant stop while the driver flies on the hood of the car (Van Maneen, 1991). Although, at a glance, employees might seem to be powerless as they have to comply with the rules of the organisation and the expectations of the customers, they have the power by controlling and operating games at Disneyland. In other word, the employees have the power to decide how they deliver the service to customers. The power of employees in this case could be seen as a mean of resistance rather than compliance as previously mentioned.

By applying the individual, organisational and societal perspective, this paper offers insight into how leadership and power originate and exist at Disneyland. The individual perspective with the trait and style approaches shows that the leaders at Disneyland are the theory X managers who possess unique characteristics such as creativity and determination. The managers use power to control and direct employees toward organisation’s goal by imposing rules and setting up a line of supervisors. Leadership should also be viewed through the organisational perspectives. At Disneyland, the managers are believed to use different sources of power including legitimate, reward and coercive power to manipulate their employees. However, the power that exists within the organisation is not always in overt form. It could be embedded within the social system.

So that the employees have to discipline themselves to perform well at work under the blind observation of the supervisors. In a wider context, leadership could be seen as a process which is influenced by the power of norm and social expectations. The power works to frame the way meanings are interpreted so that when Disneyland is generally believed to be a happy place, the managers set rules that require the employees to show a right attitude and behave in a certain way. However, the employees It could be learnt from the case of Disneyland that to fully understand leadership and power, we should view them through different perspectives. So for example, power could be seen by the leaders as authority, influence or control, but from the perspective of an employee, it might be regarded as compliance or resistance. By interpreting leadership and power through different lens, we could better direct ourselves and others towards goal.


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  5. Stories of the Storytelling Organization: A Postmodern Analysis of Disney as “ Tamara-Land”. The Academy of Management Journal, 38(4), pp. 997-1035. Appendices Appendix A My Leadership Resolutions I RESOLVE… These are my Leadership Resolutions. They are my statements of intent in the face of the challenges I see around me. Their purpose is to help me contribute to leadership around here and to develop my leadership practice[D1]KA¡AºA¿t nA¡A»‘i cAu [D2]repeat
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