3 Lessons I Stole from the Book Bill Gates Recommended to Satya Nadella

Bill Gates thinks most leadership books aren’t realistic or practical enough to recommend, but The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger is a rare exception. (Or in his words, “Unlike most books on leadership, this one is worth your time.”) After reading it a few months ago, and in preparing to share it with my Best of Books newsletter, I wanted to share some of the parts I found most valuable here.

This one involves Robert Iger sharing the most valuable lessons—frameworks, in a sense—that he learned from his decades in the media business. Even before Disney, Iger got to work with some of the best. For example, he worked as a VP at ABC Sports after it was acquired by Tom Murphy and Dan Burke. Warren Buffett describes the pair in The Outsiders as “probably the greatest two-person combination in management that the world has ever seen or maybe ever will see.”

Whether you’re lead a team of others, or just leading yourself, these three lessons can change the course of our business:

Optimism Means Trusting Yourself and Your Team

In 1988, Iger was the senior program executive at ABC for the Winter Games. Tasked with scheduling programming for the Olympics, strong chinook winds swept even the most airtight plans aside. Iger went in each day not knowing what would air that night. In short, Iger and his team were in serious trouble. He writes (The Ride of a Lifetime, p. 30), “It was a perfect example of the need for optimism.”

Iger’s main challenge was filling the primetime hours where the most anticipated Olympics events would be. While he negotiated rescheduling with some of the committee several times a day, he also sent a team of producers to find human-interest stories, which would go into that night’s broadcast. 

The improvisation went well, and ratings soared to a historical high. The cultural pinnacle was perhaps when some ABC producers found the Jamaican bobsled team, a story that would go on to inspire the film Cool Runnings. Iger’s new bosses were pleased, and he realized how important optimism was to reversing the situation. Iger writes (The Ride of a Lifetime, p. 86) , “Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.

“Optimism sets a different machine in motion. Especially in difficult moments, the people you lead need to feel confident in your ability to focus on what matters, and not to operate from a place of defensiveness and self-preservation.” 

This type of optimism is crucial. It’s not about delusion, positivity, manifesting, or anything like that—but instead, “believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don’t break your way.” Anyone can be optimistic in the good times, but cultivating optimism and trust in the bad times—that’s where true skill shines.

Start Big and Direct

Managing creative work and creators involves a different set of rules than most other processes. Iger writes (The Ride of a Lifetime, p. 43), “I never start out negatively, and unless we’re in the late stages of a production, I never start small. I’ve found that often people will focus on little details as a way of masking a lack of any clear, coherent, big thoughts. If you start petty, you seem petty. And if the big picture is a mess, then the small things don’t matter anyway, and you shouldn’t spend time focusing on them.” 

The stakes only got higher as Iger oversaw more leadership responsibilities, but he refined his own application of the frameworks. For example, when considering acquiring Pixar, Iger knew that owner Steve Jobs appreciated radical ideas, but there was also a chance Jobs could be offended by the proposition. Iger figured he had nothing to lose if he didn’t try—the outcome would be the same if Jobs said no—so, he asked Jobs (The Ride of a Lifetime, p. 135), “I’ve been thinking about our respective futures. What do you think about the idea of Disney buying Pixar?” 

It’s fortunate that Iger got the outcome he wanted, but Iger advocates taking risks regardless. He writes, “People sometimes shy away from taking big swings because they assess the odds and build a case against trying something before they even take the first step. One of the things I’ve always instinctively felt—and something that was greatly reinforced working for people like Roone and Michael—is that long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem.” 

I’ve made this mistake myself, avoiding big projects that involved risk by convincing myself that I couldn’t afford the failure. When it’s manageable, failure isn’t a problem. If you don’t try, the outcome remains the same as if you got rejected—by trying or just putting yourself out there, your odds are infinitely higher than if you didn’t try at all.

Escape Tradition and Inertia

As a company, Disney was stumbling when Iger took over the reigns. After a few successful acquisitions, Iger was afforded the luxury of re-imagining the company. He asks himself (The Ride of a Lifetime, p. 209), “If I were to erase history and build something totally new today, with all of these assets, how would it be structured?” 

It reminds me of Andy Grove, who was CEO of Intel at the time, asking president Gordon Moore, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Moore answers, “He would get us out of memories.” To which Grove says, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?”

Iger’s vision of the business was to divide Disney into three parts (The Ride of a Lifetime, p. 211)—content, technology, and theme parks: “The idea was simply to let the content people focus on creativity and let the tech people focus on how to distribute things and, for the most part, generate revenue in the most successful ways. Then, in the middle of the board I wrote ‘physical entertainment and goods,’ an umbrella for large and sprawling businesses: consumer products, Disney stores, all of our global merchandise and licensing agreements, cruises, resorts, and our six theme-park businesses.” 
This level of precision and clarity means that people actually know what they need to do, and how they can support you. Of course, the full book has many more lessons, and I didn’t skim through this one—I read it cover to cover and really enjoyed it. If you like reading or business, you’re going to really like this book. And if you’re looking for more recommendations, I send three to your inbox every month. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *