In about 698 days, the Walt Disney Company is supposed to have its fourth CEO in three years.

Optimistically presuming that past and current House of Mouse boss Bob Iger really does hand over the keys to the Magic Kingdom in late 2024 to a designated successor, the soon-to-be 100-year-old media giant may look very different than it does now — as could the contracting industry overall.

It’s a reality in a self-described “age of great anxiety” that Iger himself is markedly responsible for in many ways, but rarely is held accountable for.

“Iger gets a lot of praise as an executive, a lot of it well deserved,” noted an agency captain of the Disney vet, who returned on November 20 to the CEO job he handed to Bob Chapek less than two years ago. “But one of his greatest accomplishments may be sidestepping his missteps. The billions in debt that came with the Fox purchase, going all in on streaming, hemorrhaging TV and ESPN viewership, and the succession fiascos alone would have killed any other CEO.” Lauded by some as the man in the center of the room where it happens, in a nod to his beloved Hamilton, one studio insider added of Iger: “He’s teflon like Reagan, but left a lot of mess over the years for others to clean up like (Bill) Clinton.”

Still, eulogized and feted by fellow grand viziers both during his previous stint running Disney and during his short-lived but socially-crammed retirement, Iger will wake up on Christmas morning facing a new year likely full of economic austerity and hard choices as the company and the entertainment business heads deeper into choppy waters.

Perhaps in his sleep, Iger will have heard whispers from ghosts like one-time heir presumptive Tom Staggs, real life successor Chapek, and Apple boss and pal Tim Cook. Perhaps such ghosts recited Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” and, as in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, showed the 71-year old Iger frightening visions of the past, present, and future. Perhaps he will be haunted by sins of the past that could determine his and the company’s next era.

After checking the Avatar: The Way of Water box office in the pre-dawn hours and looking out over Brentwood, the notoriously early-rising Iger may have started mulling over the usefulness of that checklist of optimism, courage, focus, decisiveness, curiosity, fairness, thoughtfulness, authenticity, the relentless pursuit of perfection, and integrity he laid out as principles of “true leadership,” described in his 2019 Ride of a Lifetime memoir. Ticking off another day on his present two-year contract as Disney CEO and looking for the icebergs in front of him and the pressing need to pick a corporate heir, Iger may ask himself, “Why the hell did I agree to do this again?” It certainly wouldn’t be an unprecedented question in an industry that Rupert Murdoch and Iger himself recently predicted would see the big screen becoming smaller, linear TV collapse and streaming confront a culling.

The November coup against Chapek orchestrated by CFO Christine McCarthy and the sudden back-to-the-future change in Disney’s corner office followed a bleak end of fiscal 2022.

The company last month issued revised guidance for single-digit revenue and profit growth in 2023, a fraction of the gains outlined in previous internal and Wall Street forecasts. While Disney’s focus on streaming has yielded strong results in ever growing subscriber totals, the initiative has also become a financial drain, causing almost $1.5 billion in operating losses in just the most recent quarter. The brass has insisted that the worst losses are in the rear-view mirror and they still expect streaming to become profitable by next fiscal year.

Despite the talk of wish fullfilment, though, investors haven’t responded well to the company’s narrative. After a short-lived rally on the news of Iger’s return, Disney shares have recently slumped to multi-year lows below $90. They have declined more than 40% in 2022 to date — not the steepest drop in the battered media sector, but an unsettling one for investors in a Dow component long known as a beacon of stability.

It’s a “Bah Humbug” state of affairs that puts Iger’s shortcomings as well as his strengths in the spotlight, as his latest swan song commences:

Of course, with all that, not wanting to leave just coal in the Christmas stocking this holiday, it would be negligent to ignore that Bob Iger is an executive with many, many strategic skills. Foremost among them must be his talent relations, his greatest superpower and virtue. Perhaps it is because there’s undoubtedly still a splotch of the Long Island boy who dreamed of being a TV anchor inside the seasoned septuagenarian exec, but Iger has long had an innate ability to connect with creatives on both sides of the camera.

“Not only do you feel he hears you, but that he will both protect you and your vision,” a tentpole scribe said of the CEO. That deft touch developed the powerhouse silos that are Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars within the Disney empire and grew the theme parks in China and elsewhere.

Iger’s eye for talent also, more often than not, delegated the execution of corporate goals to trusted deputies. The likes of Alan Horn, Kevin Feige, Kathleen Kennedy, communications adviser Zenia Mucha, the once valued Chapek, and Mayer, as well as Staggs and Rasulo all held those coveted spots. Displaying the curiosity, he mentioned in his Ride of a Lifetime book, Iger brought the likes of Peter Rice into the inner circle after the Fox acquisition. “He lives and breathes Disney, he connects its success and impact to himself, and that will always drive him,” a studio insider succinctly states.

So, what would make for a storybook ending in two years for Iger and Disney?

Playing the long game, literally and figuratively.

Even in an erratic market like we’ve seen the past few months and with talk of a recession, the Disney stock should stabilize once Wall Street picks up that the company once again has a strong leader. A leader who won’t try to anticipate what will please the bankers with cost cutting layoffs and shedding valuable assets, but rather one who aims to build a company worth investing in.

Widely extolled now, not everybody at the time saw the wisdom in purchasing Pixar when Iger was courting Steve Jobs, or in Marvel or LucasFilm for that matter. Any studio in town could have made those deals, but Iger actually made those deals. While even more costly than ever with digital players like Amazon and YouTube place big bets, live sports has shown itself to be a linchpin for streaming. Positioned for that reality, ESPN gives Disney the best beachhead brand name, so why sell it off? Iger has stressed his 2.0 reign will return Disney to emphasizing and empowering creatives over accountants. That’s the thinking that empowered the likes of Marvel’s Feige and Lucasfilm’s Kennedy and positioned Disney for its ongoing historic content run that started about a dozen years ago.

Even the debt heavy Fox acquisition can prove to have a significant future forward payout if James Cameron and his Avatar sequels become another valuable silo for the screen and the parks.

Like any good narrative, the fact is confidence inspires confidence.

Bob Chapek lost the support of the town and the Susan Arnold-led Disney board because he shifted positions that robbed confidence in his judgment.

If Iger can repeat and follow up on just some of his past success, it is very possible the CEO can achieve exactly what the board hoped he would by reinstating him last month. And then the question will be this: if Iger truly is hard pressed in two years to find a successor more capable than he, rather than risk being bored in retirement and preside over another possible Game of Thrones exercise that will lead more of his lieutenants to head for the exits if they don’t get the crown, why not stay awhile?

That could end up being a very nice early Christmas present for all concerned.

Dade Hayes and Jill Goldsmith contributed to this report

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