Of all the characters in all the Disney films the one I love the most is Jiminy Cricket from “Pinocchio.” My favorite scene in the movie is when the blue fairy is saying to Pinocchio, “Always let your conscience be your guide.”
Pinocchio asks, “What are conscience?” and Jiminy Cricket is scandalized by the question. “What are conscience! What are conscience! Conscience is that still, small voice that people won’t listen to.
That’s just the trouble with the world today.” I love the way Jiminy Cricket is always there with a nerdy, ethical thing just as Pinocchio’s coming up with some kind of good plan. I think of him as speaking truth to puppet.
I always wondered what it was about Jiminy Cricket that made me love him so much and one day it hit me. It was because he sounds like my grandfather. My grandfather was a very sweet and cuddly man, and I loved him to the moon and back.
But I shared him with a big, wide world. His name was Roy O. Disney, and together with his younger brother Walt Disney, he came from a very humble upbringing in Kansas and started and ran one of the most iconic businesses in the world.
Two things I remember the best about going to Disneyland with my grandfather. The first thing was he always gave me a stern warning that if I ever sassed anybody who worked there, I was in deep doo-doo when we got home.
He said, “these people work really hard — harder than you can imagine, and they deserve your respect.” The other is that he never walked by a piece of garbage, inside of Disneyland or anywhere else, where he didn’t bend over to pick it up.
He said, “no one’s too good to pick up a piece of garbage.” In Grandpa’s day, a job at Disneyland was not a gig. A person could expect to own a home, raise a family, access decent health care, retire in some security without worrying on just what he earned there at the park.
Mind you, Grandpa fought the unions, and he fought them hard. He said he didn’t like to be forced to do something he wanted to do voluntarily. That was rank paternalism of course and maybe even a tiny bit of BS.
He wasn’t an angel, and everyone wasn’t well and fairly treated across the company, something that’s well-known. But I think in his core he had a very deep commitment to the idea that he had a moral obligation to every human being that worked for him.
That actually wasn’t such an uncommon attitude for CEOs of the day. But when my grandfather died in 1971, a new mindset was beginning to take hold of the American and eventually the global imagination.
Jiminy Cricket got shown the door by economist Milton Friedman, among others, who popularized the idea of shareholder primacy. Now, shareholder primacy is a pretty reasonable idea when you think about it.
Shareholders own the company, shareholders want profits and growth, so therefore you prioritize profits and growth. Very sensible. But unfortunately, shareholder primacy was an idea that became a mindset and then that mindset jumped the rails, and it came to fundamentally alter everything about the way companies and even governments were led and managed.
Milton Friedman’s pivotal op-ed in the “New York Times” was followed by decades of concerted organizing and lobbying by business-focused activists along with a sustained assault on every law and regulation that had once held businesses’ worst impulses in check.
And soon enough, this new mindset had taken hold across every business school and across every sector. Profits were to be pursued by any means necessary, unions were kneecapped, taxes were slashed, and with the same machete, so was the safety net.
I don’t need to tell you about the inequality that’s been the result of these shifts. We all know the story well. The bottom line is that everything that turns a gig into a livelihood was stripped away from an American worker.
Job security, paid sick days, vacation time — all of that went away even as the wealthy saw their net worths bloat to unprecedented, and yes, unusable levels. Although if you’re Scrooge McDuck you could change it all into gold coins and backstroke through it.
So let me just address the Dumbo in the room. Yes, I am criticizing the company that bears my family’s name. Yes, I think Disney can do better. And I believe that many of the thousands of magnificent people who work at the Walt Disney Company wish that it would do better just as much as I do.
For almost a century, Disney has turned a pretty profit on the idea that families are a kind of magic, that love is important, that imaginations matter. That’s why it turns your stomach a little bit when I tell you that Cinderella might be sleeping in her car.
But let’s be very clear: this is not just about Disney. This is structural and this is systemic. No single CEO on his own is culpable and no single company has the wherewithal to buck this. The analysts, the pundits, the politicians, the business school curricula and the social norms drive the shape of the contemporary economy.
Disney is just doing what everybody else does, and they’re not even the worst offender. If I told you how bad it was for workers at Amazon or McDonald’s or Walmart, or any one of a thousand other places you’ve never heard of, it’s not going to hit you as viscerally as if I tell you that 73 percent, or three out of four of the people who smile when you walk in, who help you comfort that crying baby, who maybe help you have the best vacation you ever have, can’t consistently put food on the table.
It’s supposed to be the happiest place on earth. And the people who work there take incredible pride that they pursue a higher purpose. It’s a higher purpose that both my grandfather and great-uncle very intentionally built when they made it a place that honors an interaction over a transaction.
Now, I know that a word like magic makes you wonder if I’ve taken leave of my senses. I know it’s hard to imagine that something as ephemeral as love can support a brand as big as Disney, and I know that it’s hard to imagine that things as unquantifiable as moral obligations should have any call on us when we seek to deliver value to our investors.
But accounting and finance don’t run the world. Beliefs, mindsets — those are what drive business ethics. And if we’re going to change those mindsets and belief systems, we’re going to have to use the most Disney superpower out there.
We’re going to have to use our imaginations. You’re going to have to invite Jiminy Cricket back to the party. Now, Jiminy Cricket might start with some low-hanging fruit, like, greed is not good, like the world is not divided into makers and takers, and that nobody ever, without any help, pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps — if you know anything about physics you’ll understand why that is.
Jiminy might remind us that every single person who works for us, without exception, whether they fill out the spreadsheets or change the bedsheets, deserves the respect and dignity of living wage. It’s as simple as that.
And Jiminy might wonder how managers and employees could possibly have any kind of empathy for each other when their workplaces have become so segregated that it seems normal and natural that an executive needs an especially swanky place to park or eat or go to the bathroom or that an executive is too good to pick up a piece of garbage.
We are, after all, just the one species living together on just the one planet. Jiminy might ask us to question some of our dogma. Does a CEO really need to be paid as much or more than every other CEO or is that just creating a competitive dynamic that’s driving numbers into the stratosphere? He might wonder if boards really do know all that they really need to know when they don’t have frontline workers ever at their meetings.
He might ask if there’s such a thing as too much money. Or he might wonder if maybe we can make common cause with consumers, with workers, with companies, with communities, for all of us to come together to redefine this incredibly narrow idea of what the purpose of a company really is.
Jiminy would want us to remember that nobody works in a vacuum, that the men and women who run companies actively cocreate the reality we all have to share. And just like with global warming, we are, each of us, responsible for the collective consequences of our individual decisions and actions.
I believe that the most profitable business ecosystem in the history of the world can do better. I believe we can take just a little bit off of the upside, take a tiny bit of pressure off the speed at which things are happening.
I believe that everything we lose in the short-term will more than make up for itself in an expanded landscape of moral, spiritual and financial prosperity. I know what the cynics say, and it’s true: you can’t eat your principles.
But you can’t breathe a basis point either, and neither can your children. I know I idolized my grandfather probably too much. He worked in very different times and those are times none of us want to go back to for all kinds of good reasons.
I know there are a lot of CEOs today who are just as well-meaning and just as decent as my grandfather was, but they’re working at a time with very different expectations and much more cutthroat context.
But here’s the good news. Expectations and contexts are made and they can be unmade, too. There is so much to learn from the simple integrity of how my grandfather understood his job as CEO. Behind every theme park and every stuffed animal, a handful of principles governed everything.
Every single person deserves respect and dignity. No one is too good to pick up a piece of garbage, and always let conscience be your guide. We could all do worse than listen to Jiminy Cricket.