10/12/2011 03:16 pm ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

Lessons From Disney to the U.S. Government

I read on my smartphone that another government shutdown was imminent as a man with a mop traced Goofy onto the pavement he cleaned.

President Obama chastised Congress to pass his Jobs Bill as a woman wearing a Mickey Mouse mitt waved at my husband and I as she called out, "Happy anniversary!"

Harry Reid insulted John Boehner and then John Boehner insulted Harry Reid as a checkout girl handed a heaping cup of free Dole Whip to a bald boy wearing a baseball cap.

Worst of times, meet the best of times. Best of times, meet the worst. That's how my husband and I felt as we spent our anniversary at Walt Disney World: We were in the one place in the United States where partisan wrangling seemed like Jafar or Snow White's evil stepmother -- true evil of the illusionary variety. This was, indeed, the happiest place on earth.

After our last day at the park, my husband and I boarded the shuttle to take us back to our hotel. The wait was under ten minutes, the ride less than twenty. The bus driver serenaded us with "Under the Sea" as we drove through dark Florida swampland.

"Wouldn't our country be better off if Disney ran it?" I mused.

My husband tilted his head at me through the darkness. "No," he said.

"But everything runs on time here. There's no deficit here. Politicians don't hate each other here."

"You don't pay taxes here either," he said.

"But I pay my admission to the parks," I said as we disembarked from the bus. "Isn't that like a tax? It's the fee I pay for the privilege of being able to walk down Main Street, U.S.A."

"Have a magical day!" the bus driver called after us as we stepped into the humid Florida night.

"But Disney only has to provide one service -- your entertainment," my husband continued. "The government has to provide funds for the military and infrastructure and disaster relief and technological research and medical research and education and..."

I could see the financial synapses in my husband's actuarial brain firing, and I readied myself for a debate filled with strings of intimidating terms like automatic stabilizer and cost-push inflation.

"Nope -- it just wouldn't work," he finished, and turned to reflect upon a large Mickey topiary.

Now, I am far from an economist -- I'm an Episcopal priest. I lecture college courses in religion; I coach individuals on how to nurture their personal goals and careers -- but something prevented me from buying into my husband's logic.

Sure, Walt Disney World doesn't have the same set of obligations to its visitors that the government has to its citizens or the wider global community, but the fact of the matter remains that Disney satisfaction rates are high -- most people who visit Walt Disney World don't leave with complaints. 70% of first time visitors return.

Take a look at the President's approval rating. Or worse yet, Congress's. They're not at 70%.
In other words -- something that's broken in our government works just fine at Walt Disney World. And whatever that is may well be the reason why they remain the largest single site employer in the world as well as its the most frequented vacation spot.

So I decided to discover what that something was.

But in order to do that, I needed some help, and in times when help is required, that usually means that I -- like Hermione Granger -- go to the library. I emerged carrying a copy of Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney, written by former Disney Executive Vice President Lee Cockerell, convinced that my answer to the question lay inside.

"It's not the magic that makes it [Disney] work; it's the way we work that makes it magic," Cockerell began.

Magic in people, I scribbled into the notebook I keep nearby. So Walt Disney World isn't successful because of something inherent in the brand or some kind of subliminal Mickey Mouse messaging that grabs the attention of those who visit the World. It's something about the way the staff at Disney works, something that could be adopted by those who work in our own government as well. But what is that something, and how can it be replicated outside of Disney?

I read on, and as I did, certain themes began to emerge. The funny thing is, the book wasn't filled with academic jargon -- the terms automatic stabilizer and cost-push inflation never came up. These were common sense principles, the kind your mom or dad or favorite elementary school teacher or Sesame Street character taught you. And yet, as I read them, I realized that by and large the individuals who run our country, regardless of political party, seem to have forgotten about them. Which may explain why government officials squabble about specific issues -- the budget deficit, the cost of wars and clean energy. All these things are symptoms of a deeper problem, like chills and fever are of the flu. So ironically, the issue isn't the issues (try saying that ten times fast). The issue is something deeper, and if we really want to get our government working smoothly, then the source of these symptoms is what we need to tackle.

Lee Cockerell, the Disney VP who wrote Creating Magic, says the source of these problems is really all about leadership. Most problems at Disney, he says, could be traced to faulty leadership -- I'm going to argue the same is true for our government. He argues that Disney's success goes back to leadership skills employed by every single Disney employee, whether that employee is president of the company or an individual mopping Main Street, U.S.A.

So what does leadership look like for Lee Cockerell and Walt Disney World? Well, here are a few themes that stood out from my reading that summarize his message:

Value Everyone And Show It (Otherwise Known As Respect): Lee Cockerell writes that Disney World thrives because the company values every Cast Member (a.k.a. employee) and Guest. In fact, the terms Cast Member and Guest are capitalized as a symbol of that value. Just as our names are capitalized to set us apart as individuals, so Disney capitalizes these terms. But at Disney, valuing everyone isn't just a paper policy -- it's practiced every day because, as Lee Cockerell writes, "When people feel valued for the talents and skills they bring to the team, their level of commitment soars" (37).

In other words, if you show that you value someone, they will perform better, and that creates a payoff for everyone. For instance, Lee Cockerell writes that one way Disney shows they value all their Cast Members is that regardless of rank, individuals can improve performance in the World. The songs we heard bus drivers singing, for instance, wasn't a practice that some office exec suggested -- it was the idea of the folks driving the buses. That's not only empowering to the bus drivers; it sends a positive message to the consumer as well. My husband, his family, and I heard the bus drivers singing, and we laughed. We loved it. It's a great story to tell. It makes us feel good. And all of those good feelings make us much more likely to want to come back to Walt Disney World. Is our government showing that they value everyone and then letting the effects of that valuation trickle down like Reagan-era economics said it should? Not so much. And if government representatives aren't convincing Americans that they're valued, then we, in turn, are much less likely to want to invest in our country, just like if my husband and I didn't have a good time at Disney World, we'd be much less likely to come back.

So you might be a millionaire who's miffed at the Warren Buffett tax. You might be a person of lesser income who feels like the government isn't standing up for impoverished or middle-class Americans. Either way, if you don't feel like the government values you, you are far less likely to want to give back to it or make sacrifices for it, even if you feel like those sacrifices will make the country stronger.

Practice Humility: No one is right all the time, regardless of who you are or what your background is. Imperfection is perhaps the one characteristic shared by every person on earth. And yet, humility -- or the awareness of one's imperfection -- isn't something we see much in our government leaders. Ask yourself: Have you ever heard your least favorite politician say he or she was wrong about something? How about your most favorite politician? Well, there you have it. As Lee Cockerell writes, "Don't confuse being persuasive with winning at all costs. If you trust your vision, by all means work to overcome the resistance and stick to your guns. The results will speak for themselves. But if the resisters offer compelling arguments and solid evidence, don't be too stubborn to back down. People respect leaders who pick their battles and can admit to being wrong every once in awhile" (79-80).

Gain Trust, Then Work To Keep It: My husband and I read that buses at Disney came every twenty minutes, and you know what, they did. Reliably, within twenty minutes, a bus to EPCOT or Magic Kingdom or our resort arrived at the station. It didn't make surprise stops. It didn't take us to Animal Kingdom when it said it was going to Hollywood Studios. The bus system was trustworthy, and so was just about everything else at Walt Disney World.

In contrast, our government leaders haven't been doing much lately to cultivate our trust. Whether it's Republican nominees tarnishing each other's reputations at a debate or whether the president is attacking Congress, the political maneuvers that go down in Washington lead to massive distrust among not just Americans but also the world at large. Ask anyone at Standard and Poor's rating agency, for instance, and they'll tell you that they downgraded U.S. credit for the first time in history because they didn't trust government leaders to successfully navigate these tough economic times. As Lee Cockerell told me when I spoke with him by phone, "If you only want one word to describe leadership, that word is trust. Unless you build trust, you won't get done half the things you could get done. It takes a long time to build it up, and it takes about 10 seconds to lose it.

So there they are: respect, humility, and trust. Three principles of sound leadership. I can't help but wonder, if leadership were as foundational to our country as the Constitution, if so many people would be as disheartened by the state of our government as they are today.

But of course, these principles of leadership can't just be practiced in Washington. They need to be practiced by all of us, so that when we go to the polls, we'll know what good leadership looks like because we live it ourselves. After all, we're the ones who vote in government officials, and when they fail to lead well, it's implicitly our fault for trusting their leadership in the first place.

So perhaps the lesson to be learned is that leadership isn't just something those working in the nation's capital must practice. It needs to be practiced by all of us, every magical -- or not so magical -- day.