Why Won't Disney's Anne Sweeney Lean In? Women and Leadership Dilemmas

Why Won't Disney's Anne Sweeney Lean In? Women and Leadership Dilemmas

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This decision, personal as it is, is a blow to larger hopes for women's leadership.

Anne Sweeney doesn't want to lean in.

In an announcement that had people doing double-takes on their email alerts, Sweeney told the world on Tuesday that, No, thanks, she would rather not run a part of the Disney empire. What she really wants to do is direct.


This decision, personal as it is, is a blow to larger hopes for women's leadership. And it comes in the very week that we learn yet again that women characters remain persistently sparse in the movies, and a day after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launched a #banbossy campaign to encourage girls to shake off naysayers, step up and lead.

Also read: Cate Blanchett Was Right – Women Making Little-to-No Progress in Landing Major Movie Roles

But Sweeney says she does not want to lead anymore. “There has always been a nagging voice in the back of my head pushing me to step out of the comfort zone of the executive ranks and more directly into the creative arena that enticed me to TV in the first place,” she said in her statement.  She added, “I finally listened to that voice and thought, ‘If not now, when?”

Fair enough. But let's be honest about this. Sweeney's decision to step off the leadership path sends a signal, whether she likes it or not.

Certainly she must do what she feels is right for herself. And it is impossible to know at this stage if there are other unstated factors at play — health, familial or other — that led to this decision.

But the timing is decidedly odd. Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger will retire in 2016. Sweeney was known to be one of his favored deputies and there is no reason to think she would not have been in the running to be CEO.

Also read: Women on Broadway: New Study Reveals Grim Statistics (Exclusive)

It's a job she has made known that she does not want, Disney insiders tell me.

In her current role Sweeney is already responsible for the Walt Disney Co.'s global entertainment and news television properties, which include ABC Studios, the ABC Owned Television Stations Group and the ABC Television Network, representing more than 200 affiliated U.S. stations and tens of millions of viewers. She is responsible for ABC Family and the Disney Channels Worldwide, the family of networks including Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Disney Cinemagic, Hungama, and Radio Disney.

There is little doubt that Iger's successor will come from the rank of Disney's lucrative television or cable divisions. Sweeney was certainly a contender.

Also read: Anne Sweeney Exits Disney: TheWrap Picks Potential Replacements

“A lot of people wanted that (CEO) job for me,” Sweeney told Cynthia Littleton at Variety. “What I knew was that as great as that job is, it wasn't the job I wanted for myself. I did not want that as my next chapter.”

That's too bad. Let's think about what that might have looked like: a woman CEO running one of the largest media companies in the world, heading up one of the most cherished and influential American cultural brands.

As a woman passionate about women's leadership, and frustrated by the persistently low numbers in board rooms, on boards of directors, I can't help but feel disappointed at her choice. It's one more highly capable, and highly accomplished woman out of the running.

Anne Sweeney owed no debt to her gender, or to me for that matter. Bob Iger gave a gracious tribute to Sweeney in her decision to leave him and the organization that promoted rewarded her handsomely for her work.

On a personal note, like Iger I wish her well. On a more deeply personal note — I wish she'd have leaned in for a few more years.


  • Fan of Anne

    There's about five working female directors in Hollywood. Gonna have to disagree – Sweeney is definitely still “leaning in”, just in a different way.

    • Geetha

      yeah… in the tiniest way possible. She could've made such a HUGE impact by grabbing the Disney reins!

  • Bo

    “Sweeney's decision to step off the leadership path sends a signal, whether she likes it or not.” This is the dumbest thing I've read today. Directors are leaders. If you're so disappointed in her decision to do what's right for her, Sharon, why don't you run for the CEO position when Iger vacates it?

  • MoiraB

    What's not “leaning in” about directing, or being creative? As a woman who is both a business exec AND, in my so-called “off” hours, a musician and artist, I have to ask. Yes, we have too few women execs in Hollywood. But we also have too few women creatives, all around, and who says that being a creative is being any less a leader than being an executive? My goodness, the roles are valued so differently, and they shouldn't be.

  • Jason Bowdach

    It's quite sad this article has such a hard opinion on what is “right” versus not? Who says this move won't make major waves as she did when she rocked the cable world back in the ninties my making Disney Channel and it's cable network the powerhouse it is? This article makes negative assumptions both about her successor and her future in directing, where there are also few strong females personalites leading.

    She obviously has different goals besides “leaning forward” on your behalf. She's done an incredible job of that in her years in her current role.

    • http://www.thewrap.com TheWrap

      If Anne Sweeney were starting her career at this point, I would agree with you. But she's not. She's invested two decades in building impressive skills as an executive, which have led her to where she is today. The likelihood of her becoming the next Kathryn Bigelow – who apparently inspired her – are, common sense suggests, far more remote than her continuing a successful path as a corporate leader.
      Her choices are her own, and only she knows what is right for her, as I think I make clear. I felt a twinge when I read Iger's comment that Sweeney will hopefully direct a show for the network. She now runs the network that is in charge of dozens of such shows. sw

  • Geez

    This article is self-agrandizing BS. Which is the usual for The Wrap.

    • http://www.thewrap.com TheWrap

      unnecessary and unworthy of the discussion we're having here. head back to that other site, wouldja.

      • Shelly

        It may be unnecessary and unworthy, but that doesn't mean it's not true.

        • http://www.thewrap.com TheWrap

          many things are true, many opinions may be had. i ask that these discussions be kept civil and respectful. that is the community we've built, and tx for abiding by that culture.

          • Shelly

            Don't know who the moderator is, but there are a lot of disrespectful and less than civil comments made on TW posts. While what Geez said could have been phrased a little more politely, it is mild compared to other comments on other posts on TW.

          • Geez

            Sorry you don't appreciate my comment, but I call them as I sees them. The Wrap is about The Wrap. Its commentary often lacks empathy and insight. Just look at the comments here, posted by people outraged at the wrongheadness of this article. Who are you to judge Ms. Sweeney's actions, or presume to know what she should be doing? Let me ask this: would you question a man making the same decision?

          • Geez

            And Wrap wouldja please … And thank you, Shelly.

  • Zuckerkorn

    Anne Sweeney doesn't owe a debt to you or her gender, yet you're criticizing for not doing what you think she should do? How about highlighting the fact that a woman was in such a high-ranking position to begin with, and is leaving of her own accord to pursue something she's passionate about?

  • Anna

    I have to admit, as a feminist, this article disappoints me. The “Lean In” movement is actually quite horrific. I applaud Anne for not wanting to partake in the capitalist ideology of success by becoming a CEO, instead she is deciding to chose a more fulfilling way to navigate society's gender trouble by becoming a director. The “Lean In” does not support solidarity, it supports oneself. It does not support those working underneath you, nor does it care about the (sub)cultures and or those who are marginalized's lives, lives that are constantly being re-appropriated into mainstream society under capitalism. Oh, but we should excuse this because if women “Leaned In” then its fine. But no, you can still be an oppressor and be a woman. We should encourage women not to “Lean In,” we should encourage men not to “Lean In,” but rather learn to work together as equals. This boss culture is a hierarchal one that is determinately to our society, men and women included.

  • Carol

    The number of times Anne Sweeney asked herself, “What will Sharon Waxman think of my decision?”: 0.

  • SDB

    In my long career as a woman in management, I've often found that men were/are more supportive of my ambitions than my so-called “sisters” were/are. What's the difference between having Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Waxman set my priorities for me and having a man set my priorities for me?

    I doubt Ms. Sweeney rose to the position she holds by worrying what I think of her decisions, what Ms. Sandberg may/may not think about her decisions, what Ms.Waxman thinks about her decisions. That being said, congratulations, Ms. Sweeney on having risen to the point in your career where you can take a big chance by choosing to pursue a career as a director. Nothing but the best to you.

  • ralphie44

    Hollywood is gay jewish hell.
    Disney is gay jewish hell.

    g00gle joel stein hollywood cmon
    g00gle time israel jews media control
    google biden gay jewish influence
    all mainstream, from them
    here is last line of the one from LA Times…
    “But I don't care if Americans think we're running the news media, Hollywood, Wall Street or the government. I just care that we get to keep running them.”

    • MarkJeffries

      Bigot. Anti-Semite. Moron.

      • ralphie44

        I give you data that can be verified.
        You give me the usual name-calling.

        here, have some more data
        google “antisemitic its a trick we always use it”

        let the israeli politician tell you what that word is for

  • dee726

    misguided response to her decision. And by the way, women have run studios for years…

  • Geetha

    Sweeney could have made a huge impact by taking control of the helm of a media giant. As a director she will just be one among hundreds. I don't understand why she would work so hard and then quit when she's finally in a position to call the shots all on her own! It's so disappointing. I understand about her personal goals… but this makes no logical sense. There's definitely some other major factors that we are not seeing.

  • Geetha

    Kudos to Sharon Waxman for calling this out. Sorry, Ms. Sweeney, we love you, but it would've been so great to see you directing Disney.