The Walt Disney Company stunned industry observers on 25 February by announcing the surprise appointment of long-serving stalwart Bob Chapek as its new CEO.
With his tenure kicking in immediately, Chapek replaced the trailblazing Bob Iger, under whom the corporation had enjoyed unprecedented growth – not just in terms of its own history, but the entertainment landscape as a whole.
In a statement, the company said that Iger “assumes the role of executive chairman and will direct [our] creative endeavours, while leading the board and providing the full benefit of his experience, leadership and guidance to ensure a smooth and successful transition through the end of his contract on 31 December 2021”. 
Chapek comes to his new post off the back of a successful run as chairman of Disney parks, experiences and products, fulfilling the promise of a glittering, 27-year career at the firm.
Iger said: “Bob will be the seventh CEO in Disney’s nearly 100-year history, and he has proven himself exceptionally qualified to lead the company into its next century. Throughout his career, Bob has led with integrity and conviction, always respecting Disney’s rich legacy while at the same time taking smart, innovative risks for the future. His success over the past 27 years reflects his visionary leadership and the strong business growth and stellar results he has consistently achieved.”
During Iger’s reign, Disney reshaped its industry through a series of landmark acquisitions, purchasing digital animation studio Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion, Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4.2bn, Star Wars mothership Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.05bn and 21st Century Fox last year for $71.3bn. The first three of those buyouts have yielded spectacular financial results, consolidating Disney’s position as the world’s leading outlet of branded content.
In a 26 February analysis of Iger’s decision to hand over the reins,  Inc.com columnist Jason Aten credits the departed CEO for a “brilliant move” that demonstrates strong self-awareness. He writes: “First, let’s just acknowledge that very few people leave on top. In fact, most people aren’t self-aware enough to really know when it’s time to step back and make room for a successor.
“Many leaders believe that the success they’ve had in the past will continue indefinitely. As a result, most leaders stick around far longer than they should and end up being forced out after their performance falters. In fact, for many companies, figuring out who will lead a company next is one of the greatest risks to future success.”
Aten adds: “That’s what makes Iger’s move a good lesson for every entrepreneur. There comes a point when a good leader recognises that they’ve accomplished what they set out to do and it’s time to transition to whatever is next – for themselves and their company.”
Would higher levels of self-awareness among senior leaders spark overall improvements in succession planning in firms of every size?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head or research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “What’s interesting here is the assumption that Iger has moved on because he has a high degree of self-awareness, rather than because he simply wants to do something different. Chapek’s experience is equally interesting – as a long-serving executive who’s worked his way up, we could conjecture that he’s been waiting all this time for an opportunity to really make his mark – but again, we can’t know for sure what sort of company politics have resulted in his promotion to CEO.
“Aten asserts that CEOs tend to stay in place until their performance falters, but I’m not so sure – I can’t find any evidence for that, and it seems to be a rather sweeping generalisation. Indeed, what this story has most reminded me of is the work of Canadian economist Patricia C Pitcher. In the late 1990s, she identified three types of senior leaders: artists, craftsmen and technocrats.  In her view, different stages in an organisation’s history require different sorts of leadership styles.”
Cooper explains: “What’s evident from the greater part of Disney’s post-millennial phase is that its acquisitions generated significant excitement both within and outside the firm. While Iger drove that period of consolidation, perhaps Chapek’s tenure will be characterised by a focus on making the most of the assets purchased, rather than attempts to acquire even more.”
She notes: “We at the Institute would always advocate for higher levels of self-awareness. Indeed, in leadership, I don’t think it’s possible to be self-aware enough – certainly in terms of understanding when you are at your best, knowing what that looks like and having a sense of when to move on because the conditions for doing so are optimal. But this story also raises the question of what we are doing about the people around us, and whether we are ensuring – much as I mentioned in this week’s blog about the coronavirus – that we are engaged with succession planning on a rolling basis.”
Cooper stresses: “If you’re not mindful that you may not be in post one day, and that you need people to be able to step up, you could be putting your organisation’s sustainability at risk. And this is where flexible working, as I’ve often argued, is so helpful. By encouraging periods of absence among leaders, and therefore the use of secondments, work shadowing and short-term cover, flexible working provides valuable opportunities for colleagues to flex their skills and take on greater responsibilities. It also opens the way for project teams that deliver on specific briefs and then disband. It’s important for leaders to recognise the value of such teams for tackling high-profile initiatives that depend upon large-scale, collaborative efforts to succeed. And those teams could also disclose talented individuals within the firm.”
She adds: “There’s a great deal we could be doing to ensure smooth succession, and self-awareness certainly contributes to that. But the crux of it is to build a culture in which you encourage leaders at every level to think about the unexpected and unwanted, to provide opportunities for people to step up and – most importantly – to not rely too heavily on the influence of one, totemic individual.”
For further thoughts on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on self-awareness
Image of Bob Iger (L) courtesy of Featureflash Photo Agency, via ShutterstockImage of Bob Chapek (R) courtesy of The Walt Disney Company