Great Partnerships: But was Michael Eisner ever a team player?

October 4, 2010

Working Together:Why Great Partnerships Succeed
By Michael D. Eisner with Aaron Cohen, Harper Business

Almost still asleep, I woke up to a radio interview with Michael Eisner, one of the all-time big beasts in the Disney jungle. [BBC five live: Wake up to money, October 4th] But was I still dreaming? Eisner was talking about great partnerships in business and marriage. Don’t know much about Mr Eisner’s marriage, but team player he wasn’t.

Eisner was talking about, and plugging, a book he had written. But was this a public confessional? I had always associated him with a style of management found in the animal kingdom. Listening to the interview I thought thet he sounded more like a convert to Monty Roberts and trust-based teamwork.

I couldn’t help thinking of the power relationships in many leadership teams, illustrated recently in the film The The Damned United. This examined one of the great sporting partnerships of all time, between Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. The film suggested that Clough, for all his leadership talent, was utterly dependent on his ‘assistant’ Peter Taylor. The wider message is that of the great man theory of leadership and the repeated evidence of the largely unackowledged role of the great life partner. Was Eisner really getting into such territory? Maybe in the less-than-convincing way in which Tony Blair describes in his memoires his love and gratitude for his ‘partner’ Gordon Brown?

Perhaps not

Perhaps not. A reviewer from business week had picked up on the same theme as myself.

Eisner’s profound deafness to irony will provide readers with laughs… Eisner was indisputably half of the duo that reinvigorated Disney in the late 1980s. According to Eisner, the decade he spent working alongside Frank Wells—who died in a 1994 helicopter accident—was a wonderful partnership. Inspired by that experience, Eisner interviewed members of other successful working relationships to find out exactly what makes them click, clearly gunning for heartwarming tales of people working side by side, sharing risks and building empires. Yet what he discovers is the messy reality of alpha males and their butting egos, which he attempts to gloss over with all the Mickey Mouse enthusiasm he can muster.

The article goes on to outline how Eisner repeatedly undermines his own thesis:

While Eisner seems genuinely interested in talking up the benefits of working together, he appears blissfully clueless of the ways in which his own anecdotes undermine his thesis..  The entertainment lawyer Stanley Gold proposed a deal in which Eisner and Wells would become co-chief executive officers of Disney. Eisner rejected the offer on the spot, demanding that he alone be named CEO over the older and more experienced Wells..Wells acquiesced and became Eisner’s second-in-command. While some might see this as an example of running from the elephant ego in the room, to Eisner it’s the beauty of teamwork. When it comes to complimenting his partner of a decade, Eisner’s praise is, shall we say, nuanced. He recounts how, on their first day together at Disney, Wells was under the naive impression they might share the office where Walt himself once worked. Having none of that, Eisner made his desire for privacy perfectly clear, and his No. 2 obediently jumped up and took the office next door.

The Allen Principle

Colleague and leadership tutor Dr David Allen is a long-time journal editor and book reviewer. He says that a good review of a bad book can save others a great deal of time in not having to read the original. I think I’ll be following the Allen principle on this one.