Niles: Disney CEO Bob Chapek delivers frankness some fans don’t want to hear

Can Bob Chapek change the popular model for CEOs in America?

The chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company has been taking heat from many Disney fans over decisions he has overseen since the company emerged from the lockdowns that closed theme parks and theaters around the world. In response, Chapek has embarked on a bit of media tour recently, speaking on and off the record with many reporters before and during last week’s D23 Expo in Anaheim.

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Chapek came up to the top job at Disney through its theme park division, so I have been following his career for many years. During that time, I have had several opportunities to speak with Chapek, including during the Expo. While some have been roasting Chapek since he took over the CEO job, my opinion of the man has not changed. But I also understand why Chapek elicits such heat.

If there is one word that I would choose to describe Chapek it would be “frank” — sometimes, inelegantly so. But speaking the truth does not always serve the cause of a CEO. Over the past decades, the job of CEO at many American companies has evolved into one of a corporate cheerleader. The CEO tells Wall Street, partners, customers and employees what they want to hear, to keep all those constituencies happy and on board with the CEO’s vision.

But so long as a business remains solvent, its customers and employees don’t really care about shareholder returns. Meanwhile, shareholders are happy to squeeze customers and employees. To keep them all happy, CEOs have to obscure as much, if not more, than they inform. Dance a happy dance and hope no one notices what’s happening in the wings.

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Except that when you are running a company as widely followed as Disney, there is no hiding anything off stage. So Chapek doesn’t bother with the happy dance. He explains the inherent conflicts between Disney’s constituencies and the trade-offs the company chooses to make. Demand for Disney’s theme parks far outpaces the company’s ability to accommodate it, so Disney raises prices to lower demand and make the additional money that will keep investors happy and allow an increase in park capacity through new attractions.

That complex message is not what some fans want to hear. Social media today frames public opinion. Yet social media algorithms’ goal to promote engagement often amplifies the most divisive voices, because they are ones that provoke the most spirited response. Hate on a widely known target for defying expectations, then watch the traffic and resulting income flow. Chapek fits that model perfectly.

But Americans need to hear from more people willing to tell them the truths they might not like. And we need media that amplifies those voices rather than dismissing them in favor of rabble-rousers. Chapek does not always get it right, and he might not fit the mold that some Disney fans want in a CEO. But his frank transparency provides an example I would like to see more CEOs follow in America.