The Mystery of What Drives Bob Iger

Before this week, he had seemed congenitally unable to quit. Was it the neurochemical pleasure of the pursuit?

Bob Iger at Disneyland in Shanghai in 2017.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

2020欧洲杯APPA few years ago, Bob Iger’s friends wanted to poke a little fun at him. So, they gave him a personalized license-plate holder for his car.

There were five words printed on the frame, which formed a simple question. It was the only question on Earth that seemed to tie Mr. Iger in knots.

“Is there life after ?”

2020欧洲杯APPOver his nearly 15-year tenure as Disney’s chief executive, Mr. Iger has collected many prizes. Perhaps the rarest of all was the absolute right to retire on his own terms. For many years, the decision was his alone to make.

2020欧洲杯APPThe knock on many longtime CEOs is that they’re often the last people to realize when it’s time to go. Mr. Iger’s performance was so extraordinary that nobody wanted him to leave. And for some reason, until this week, he seemed congenitally incapable of doing so.

When Disney broke the news on Tuesday that Mr. Iger will step down as CEO, effective immediately, lots of us waited a beat before believing it. The announcement was unexpected and seemed somewhat hastily arranged2020欧洲杯APP. More importantly, it wasn’t the first such declaration from Mr. Iger. It was the fifth.

Every previous retirement attempt had later been postponed—even, in one case, after Mr. Iger told The Wall Street Journal2020欧洲杯APP: “This time I really mean it.”

2020欧洲杯APPMr. Iger has often noted that there were legitimate business reasons behind each change of heart. But most people, including his gift-giving friends, sensed that he was also deeply conflicted. Mr. Iger didn’t comment.

2020欧洲杯APPIn his 2019 memoir, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” he largely steered clear of this issue. “I’d had some previous plans to retire that didn’t quite happen as expected,” he wrote.

In my mind, the burning question about Bob Iger is this: How could an elite CEO who was renowned for his calm, thoughtful, prescient, decisive and emotionally consistent management style have so much trouble managing his own departure?

2020欧洲杯APPIf I had to guess, I’d say there might be one reason that’s not readily apparent or frequently discussed—but that probably applies to scores of highly successful type-A business leaders.

2020欧洲杯APPMr. Iger may be insensitive to dopamine.

In “The Passion Paradox,” authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness examined the lives of intensely driven people who put tremendous effort into everything they do, who constantly press the limits, never seem content and prefer to work, as they put it, “on the razor’s edge.” When channeled into a profession, their passion can produce runaway greatness. But when it’s not mindfully managed, it can become a source of anxiety that erodes our health and well-being.

This mind-set may be rooted in neurochemistry. Many brain chemicals that give humans a natural “high” are released after we’ve accomplished something. But as the authors note, there’s a complex reward system in our brains in which exciting, arousing neurotransmitters like dopamine are released during the pursuit of a goal.

2020欧洲杯APPPeople who are dopamine-insensitive need to generate more of it in order to feel its effects; which might explain why they often display outsize levels of persistence and drive. They’re inclined to seek out enormous challenges, and because they crave the chase more than the capture, they’re rarely satisfied by success. They’re anxious to take on another preposterous goal.

I have no idea if this neurochemical diagnosis fits Mr. Iger, although there’s no question that he is relentlessly driven. His breakneck workdays often begin with a 4:30 a.m. workout, and he’s famous for immersing himself in complex tasks; from rehearsing a speech in Mandarin to giving notes on numerous cuts of Disney films.

2020欧洲杯APPIn his memoir, Mr. Iger wrote that after Disney acquired the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox in 2019, he sequestered himself in front of a conference room whiteboard for five days, systematically regrouping every asset the company owned.

“I’ve always prided myself on my ability and willingness to put in a greater effort than anyone else,” he wrote.

Mr. Iger had declared he was quitting four times before.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Since 2005, Mr. Iger has made a series of incredibly shrewd moonshots. In 2006, he persuaded Steve Jobs to sell Pixar for $7.4 billion. He bought Marvel in 2009. Shanghai Disneyland, a $6 billion project, was so labor-intensive that Mr. Iger had planned to retire after it opened in 2016. Last year, Disney bought those Fox assets for $71.3 billion and successfully launched its Disney+ streaming service.

If Mr. Iger ever paused between these conquests to savor his accomplishments, he hasn’t bothered to mention it.

2020欧洲杯APPEven his side projects are massive in scope: In 2017, while reinventing Disney, he scheduled dozens of meetings and devoured speeches and policy papers in preparation for a 2020 presidential bid that never materialized.

“Over 15 years as CEO, one definitely becomes more confident,” he wrote. “But that shouldn’t in any way suggest that I’m more relaxed.” In 2005, during a grueling campaign to become CEO, he suffered an anxiety attack.

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In interviews and in his book, Mr. Iger said he’s learned to delegate more and avoid getting bogged down in minutiae. But he never slowed down. Before this week, Mr. Iger had planned to step aside in 2021. He was working harder than ever, he wrote, and wasn’t living the life he’d imagined at age 68. Still, the idea of watching others complete projects he’d started made him feel wistful.

2020欧洲杯APPThis week, Mr. Iger told CNBC: “It’s been a fun run and I’m looking forward to the run ending.” He isn’t leaving just yet: He’ll serve as executive chairman and keep an eye on creative endeavors through next year. But he’s also working on a sailboat.

It’s not clear whether he’s exhausted, bored or finally ready for a new phase of life that doesn’t involve hurtling from moonshot to moonshot. Either way, there’s a leadership lesson in all of this. Mr. Iger climbed some of the tallest mountains in business history. But the steepest challenge of all, for someone like him, may be learning how to achieve nothing at all.

—Mr. Walker, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, is the author of “The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership” (Random House).

Write to Sam Walker at sam.walker@kinofilmz.com

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