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Book Review of "Creating Magic" by Lee Cockerell

Tuesday, February 5, 2019  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Reviewed by Joy Young, Upper School Division Head, Currey Ingram Academy, Brentwood, TN


A teacher and yearbook advisor at my former school found Walt Disney World so compelling he took his family on frequent visits. After each trip, John returned to school renewed and energized. This energy flowed into his classroom and had a direct impact on the students he taught. One summer day, following his visit to Disney, he burst into my office declaring, “You HAVE to read this book!” And thus my introduction to Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney. 


While it might seem odd to compare an educational setting to Walt Disney World, but independent schools or even a yearbook program, like Disney, are very much a business. Former executive Vice President of Operations at Walt Disney World Resort Lee Cockerell chronicles his journey with this organization for more than a decade. He shares key leadership principles that begin with his journey as a poor farm boy in rural Oklahoma to his leadership role with this multi-billion dollar corporation. Outlined in this book, ten leadership strategies provide practical, straightforward guidance to help anyone become a better leader. 


In chapter one of Creating Magic, Cockerell begins with a challenging component of leadership: “Leadership is more than a role; it’s a responsibility. Being a leader means doing what has to be done, when it has to be done, in the way it should be done, whether you like it or not, and whether they like it or not.” As school leaders we understand this responsibility all too well. 


The author continues his counsel with a foundational principle that he experienced throughout his career ... “great leaders always focus on others, not on themselves. They hire the right people, train them, trust them, respect them, listen to them and make sure to be there for them when needed.” At Disney the acronym ARE is a guiding principle: Appreciation, Recognition, Encouragement. Cockerell identifies these three as the fuel that drives human energy and motivation. The following comment emphasizes the critical role ARE plays in any organization: “Ask yourself how many times you’ve thought, ‘I’m getting way too much appreciation, recognition and encouragement! I can’t take anymore.” Caring for every member of our organization is critical to the enduring success of our schools and organizations. Whether for a student, teacher, parent, or colleague, the appreciation, recognition, and encouragement given by a leader are essential in creating magic in our communities. 


When I reflect on my trips to Walt Disney World, I recall how smoothly things run. There appears to be system for literally everything. Disney has considered every detail of the customer experience - from the strategic placement of benches and restrooms to the easily read name tags that identify “cast members,” i.e., the staff who are quick to offer assistance for any request. Effective processes create an environment where systems run smoothly and employees (in our case, faculty) are freed up to respond creatively to unexpected events and offer exceptional customer service to guests (in our case, students and parents.) Cockerell offers this challenge to his readers: “If you really want to maximize the potential of your employees and the satisfaction of your customers, the last thing you want is to subject them to hassles caused by bad procedures. One of your responsibilities as a leader therefore is to identify process problems and act as quickly as possible to fix them.” As school leaders, this is an ongoing task as we ask which processes should be stopped, which new ones should be started, and which existing ones should be continued.


In chapter ten, “Stay Ahead of the Pack,” he writes that “great leaders need to be lifelong learners ... voracious in the pursuit of knowledge.” He also notes that “people who read for pleasure tend to be more successful because their reading makes them more creative. This strategy was very affirming, as we both encourage and model lifelong learning as educators. At Currey Ingram Academy, one of our most valued practices is that of a growth mindset. Not only do we provide learning opportunities for our faculty and staff, but we also promote learning throughout the community with our monthly Annette Eskind Learning Institute sessions and our annual Neuroscience and Education Symposium. 


Cockerell knew how to attract and develop smart, energetic, and creative employees. Through his examples, John learned to do the same for his yearbook staff. Each spring when the yearbook staff applications are distributed, the result is a competitive group of students vying for one of the sought-after positions. What is even more striking to me is that each year the yearbook editor embodies the leadership qualities presented in this book as well. He/she continues to promote a culture where everyone is important and yearbook staff are Appreciated, Recognized, and Encouraged. 


Through his book, Creating Magic, Cockerell offers strategies for all leaders to create “magic” in every organization. I will be forever grateful for a passionate yearbook teacher who strongly insisted that I read it. 








Joy Young is head of the upper school at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, TN. 

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