Lee Cockerell gives Iowa State students a touch of magic


Danielle Peterson/Iowa State Daily

Creating Disney Magic was put on by the Department of Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management as they had Lee Cockerell to talk about leadership, management, and customer service Jan. 31 in the Great Hall. Cockerell is the former Executive Vice President of Operations for the Walt Disney World Resort. He highlighted how hiring the right people can make it that happiest place on earth.

Mary Valentine

Lee Cockerell has dedicated his life to “creating Disney magic,” and is now devoted to sharing his insight on leadership, management, and customer service with future leaders. He has come to Iowa State to share some of his magic with students.  


In his 10 years as Senior Operating Executive for Walt Disney World, Cockerell managed operations for 20 resort hotels 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a shopping & entertainment village and the ESPN sports and recreation complex. His origination of Disney Great Leader Strategies, which has been used to train and produce over 7,000 leaders at Walt Disney World, is among his most important career operations.


His path to Senior Operating Executive was not a smooth one. He never received a college degree, instead he worked with Hilton Hotels for eight years, and then Marriott Corporation for 17 years.


Despite his unsteady road, Cockerell worked his way up to be an accomplished leader who is an expert on hospitable service within a business. He shared with the audience three areas that are crucial to maintaining a great business: hire right, train right, treat right.


“The main reason Disney World is great is because we have great people,” said Cockerell.


Hiring right is a long process, but that is just the beginning. Cockerell expresses the importance of making expectations clear in the hiring process. If you make your business’ expectations clear and employees are willing to respect them, then train them in what makes your company what it is.


“There’s one way to do things at Disney-it’s the Disney way,” Cockerell said. He explained that this causes a lot of people to leave, and that is okay. It shows discipline if employees can do things the way they are supposed to be done, instead of the way they want to do them.


The most important aspect of maintaining a great business, Cockerell believes, is treating everybody right. In order to do this, he realizes he must be a good role model for leadership. Cockerell said he received the best advice from his wife, “Be careful what you say and do.”


When asked at the end of his lecture what those who are struggling to find their passion should do, he responded, “Sometimes it takes a long time to find it [your passion]…there was life after Marriot, life after Hilton, life after getting fired once, life after Disney.”


He encourages his audience to pursue whatever they are passionate about, but do not be afraid to leave if you lose passion. The biggest lesson Cockerell said he has ever been taught is learning that we have a lot of influence. “You can make people’s lives better or worse,” he continued.


Cockerell appealed to people in all different majors and occupations when he shared four things that guests in any situation expect: feeling special, being treated as an individual, respect to them and their family, and having knowledgeable people serve them.


The Disney expert shed wisdom on several hospitality and management aspects, but kept reverting back to what he believes is the most important aspect: leadership.


Cockerell is retired now but is dedicated to advocating distinguished customer service through leadership with his seminars and lectures such as this one he presented at Iowa State.