One Job, Two Bobs and the Disney Mystique

One Job, Two Bobs and the Disney Mystique
Photo illustration VIP+: AP Photos

Among the many activities Bob Iger lined up after leaving the top job at Disney, he had begun writing a second book. While his first, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” recounted the five decades he spent at the company, the follow-up was to be an exploration on how managers could successfully navigate crises.

Now it looks like he’s got a few more chapters to write. 

The return of the 71-year-old Iger for a two-year stint as CEO will give him plenty of fresh material as he attempts to dig Disney stock out of its five-year low amid the global economic malaise and serious challenges facing traditional media companies.

It’s a stunning development, to say the least, but Bob Chapek being ousted isn’t the surprising part. While he deserves credit for even trying to steer Disney through a pandemic and the beginnings of a recession, his tenure was rocky from the start and often his own fault. The "Don't Say Gay" disaster, the handling of the Scarlett Johansson "Black Widow" negotiations and the abrupt termination of Peter Rice were signs that Chapek was in over his head.

How’s this for karma: Chapek got tossed without warning after the Disney board extended his contract by three years back in June — the same month Chapek shocked Hollywood by tossing Rice, who was coming off his own contract extension.

It's tempting to conclude that the straw that broke the camel's back was the woeful fiscal fourth-quarter results Disney reported earlier this month. That surely didn't help matters, but some skepticism is warranted for a narrative that simple: One bad quarter at a time when all media conglomerates are suffering can't explain why the Disney board suddenly had a change of heart.

No, there must be something that hasn't yet come to light that's responsible for Chapek's firing. CNBC reported that senior Disney execs had complained about his leadership. The substance of those complaints is not known, but it must have been bad.

Still, you have to wonder whether Chapek really ever had a chance, especially considering the shadow Iger cast over him from the moment he left the job. First there was Iger staying on in an advisory role to help ease Chapek's transition, which had some tongues wagging that Iger was still the de facto CEO. Then there were reports of the rivalry between the two men. Top that off with the occasional criticism Iger was reported to have regarding Disney's strategic direction, and this unexpected succession starts to make sense.

To some degree, it felt like Iger never really fully left the job, though he often professed to be happy to put that chapter of his life behind him. It's not like he'd been twiddling his thumbs in retirement ever since. He invested in tech startups, signed on at a venture capital firm and even got knighted by Queen Elizabeth II before she died. Shuffleboard and early-bird dinners are not in Iger's DNA.

Perhaps none of these ventures ever gave Iger the rush that running Disney did. It's almost like he is addicted to the brand, to the point where succession became a sore spot for him. He postponed retirement four times since 2013 and reneged on a pledge to hand over the keys to the Magic Kingdom to Tom Staggs in 2016.

This may also be a legacy play as well. Abruptly exiting his CEO position right before the pandemic struck was not a good look for Iger. Now he has the chance to swoop back into the Magic Kingdom to save the day like a Marvel superhero, a more fitting finale to a legendary career.