When Should You Tear Down Your Founder’s Legacy?

Chief Executive Officer

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“Could Walt Disney be next?”

This question was asked by Hollywood’s Deadline news site. While it’s hard to imagine angry crowds tearing down the beloved “Partners” statue featuring Walt and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland when you can’t even sneak into the theme park wearing a Cinderella costume, it’s much easier to imagine the corporation voting to, as they say at Imagineering, “plus” an existing attraction so “the new concept is inclusive—one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by.”

Is Walt Disney himself inclusive?

I mean, he was the man behind Song of the South and the Jim Crow crow in the classic animated film Dumbo. There are even accusations, aired by NPR last year, that Mickey Mouse is “layered with markers of blackface.”

Critics within the theme park industry are now calling for bigger changes at Disneyland and other attractions. As Cynthia Sharpe, a principal at Thinkwell Group, wrote in a July 15 blog post, “Reworking ‘Splash Mountain’ is also an absolute rabbit hole because once your eyes are opened to the ways…racism pervades narrative tropes and beloved experiences, it’s overwhelming.” Racism, she says, “is everywhere.”

And if Walt Disney goes down, there are other icons of America’s most popular attractions lining up to be next.

• Milton Hershey: Here’s another wildly successful CEO with a sculpture adorning the entrance to a theme park. Should Hersheypark’s 3.3 million annual guests have to pay homage to someone who restricted enrollment in his famous school to “poor, white, orphan boys?” It wasn’t until 1968 that the school was integrated.

• Henry Ford: There is a statue of the founder of The Ford Motor Company outside The Henry Ford Museum and its adjacent Ford Rouge Factory Tour. Nearly 2 million guests are exposed to a bronze image of the same man described by The Washington Post as having a “dark legacy of…anti-Semitism.”

• Dolly Parton: Near the popular Dollywood theme park in East Tennessee is a sculpture of a young Dolly playing a guitar. However, this is the same musician who, according to some critics, is guilty of “white appropriation” when she introduced disco into her music. In a 1986 interview with New York Magazine, disco pioneer and former Black Panther Nile Rodgers said hearing Dolly Parton sing disco “was disgusting to me.” And as ridiculous as this sounds considering Dolly and Nile actually performed together at a benefit concert last year, let’s remember that Dollywood is co-owned by the same company that manages the attractions at Stone Mountain Park Georgia featuring what Slate calls “the mother of all Confederate monuments.”

Now, I have two confessions to make. First, I have never tried to sneak into Disneyland wearing a Cinderella costume. And second, I do not think the sculpture of Walt (or Milton, Henry and Dolly) should be removed. However, when facing peaceful protestors marching down Main Street USA, I think I might be reluctant to defend my decision.

And that’s the challenge facing leaders today. CEOs need a set of common guiding principles as to when they should tear down a sculpture, cancel a brand, change an experience or even rename their company. If racism is everywhere as those protesting proclaim, then how do you know when and where to stop?

Remember that rabbit hole mentioned earlier? Well, this is a serious issue for leaders. If The New York Times is talking about why we should take down the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., then I think any corporate founder, brand or experience is fair game. Without a few guiding principles, it’s a slippery slope from Splash Mountain to tearing down the legacy of Walt Disney and removing the sculpture of Walt and Mickey welcoming millions of guests in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo and Paris.

There are three things that can help guide you when facing those who would tear down your company’s legacy. And if you don’t think the consequences are serious, just talk with the former executives of SeaWorld who were slow to respond to Blackfish and the critics who tore down the company’s founder Shamu. So, whether you are facing angry critics seeking to put you out of business, woke advertisers or even a board wringing its hands, here are three principles that can guide leaders today:

1. Know your history: If you don’t know the history of your founder or organization, take the time to study it personally. While leaders can be assisted by historians, curators and experts, this is not something that should be delegated. You must personally make the effort to travel back in time so you can understand the lessons from the past. You need to identify the most important legacy of your founder. And then you must share those lessons by being transparent about your company’s history. The perfect legacy doesn’t exist, but the only way you can defend, curate, connect or even reframe your legacy is to know the facts.

2. Share your vision: This is about the future. Where your organization is going is far more important than where it has been. Of course, this requires actually having a vision, which is more difficult than it sounds. However, once you have a vision, then the path is usually clear on how to connect the most important parts of your company’s legacy to support that vision.

3. Make a decision: Finally, even though it’s important to time travel to the past and future, we live in the present. You must make a decision today about whether to tear down your legacy. This is not something you can just ignore and hope for the best. If you don’t make a decision, someday that decision will be made for you. In other words, once you’ve studied the history of your founder, there’s really only one question you need to answer. Do the most important parts of that legacy connect and align with the current vision of your company? If the answer is “yes,” then defend that founder and your own legacy with all your strength. If the answer is “no,” then tear that legacy down.

While researching this topic, I called the only sculptor I know. Ivan Schwarz is the CEO and Founder of StudioEIS. This Brooklyn studio’s work can be seen at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Constitution Center and the San Francisco 49ers Museum. A sculpture they created of Henry Ford is on display in Washington D.C.’s National Harbor.

Or at least it still was when I wrote this.

“Tearing down sculptures is nothing new,” Ivan said. “It’s been going on for thousands of years and one of the first acts of our own American revolution in 1776 was tearing down a statue of King George III in New York City.” In fact, Ivan made a statue of revolutionaries tearing down the English King’s statue for the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Ivan even made a trip through Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union fell to document fallen statues of Lenin and other communist leaders. When I asked him about when a sculpture of a founder should be removed, he answered by pointing me to a speech in 2017 by the then Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu when the city removed several Confederate statues.

Mayor Landrieu said he chose to remove these statues because they were an “inaccurate recitation of our full past…an affront to our present…and a bad prescription for our future.”

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