Leadership Secrets of Disney's Moana


Photo by Crispin Jones on Unsplash

“It’s called wayfinding, princess. It’s not just sails and knots, it’s seeing where you’re going in your mind. Knowing where you are by knowing where you’ve been.”
— Maui from Moana

I have ten children, so I have seen most Disney movies many times. Moana is one of those, and one that has become important to me as a model for leadership.

For anyone who has not seen the movie or not enough times to recall the story…Moana is the story of a young woman in the South Pacific. The daughter of the chief, she has been raised to be the future leader of her people. From an early age, though, she felt something else call her. One thousand years before, the demigod Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, the creator deity. As a result, a curse has been spreading through the world and has reached Moana’s island.

Moana sails from her island. First she must rescue Maui from the island where we has bee stranded since he stole the heart. Then together that seek out Te Fiti to return the heart and stop the curse. Along the way, Maui teaches Moana to become a way finder who can navigate on the open ocean. They have many more adventures along the way, but I don’t want to ruin the entire movie.

Even though she is just a teen-ager, Moana demonstrates outstanding leadership qualities.

Lesson One: Agility and Teamwork

Moana demonstrates the importance of agility in leadership and working as a team. When Moana attempts to return the heart, her first method fails. Maui is a shapeshift, and he turns into an eagle. He is unable to get past the fire demon protecting Te Fiti’s island. Next Moana attempts to sail through a gap in the barrier island. This strategy also fails until Maui distracts the demon, allowing Moana just enough time to get through. On their own, neither Moana or Maui were capable of completing the mission. It took team work and experimentation to find the right path.

Lesson Two: The Journey is Not the Destination

On the surface, the plot of Moana is about returning the heart. This journey, though, is just a set-up. Moana’s people had been explorers and voyagers, but they had become bound to their island. Moana’s journey meant going beyond the island, and when she returned, her people learned from her how to navigate. The main journey was just the opportunity to learn what Moana needed to learn to be able to help per people. Often what we learn by doing something is more important than the outcome of what we do.

Lesson Three: Change is hard.

Moana has to fight her father the chief about leaving the island. On the island, the people have everything they need. To leave is to threaten the stability that the community has. At the same time, it is not possible to grow and stay in place. Leadership is about showing the way.

Agile Wayfinding

The process of “agile wayfinding” is something I developed a couple of years ago as an approach to planning that was less rigid that traditional methods of planning. This includes personal planning or for organizations. It was heavily influenced by agile project management. The idea of wayfinding comes from Moana. When we plan, we are navigating. We have a destination in mind, but to get there, we will have to make adjustments as we go based on the events and conditions that we cannot anticipate. South Pacific navigators could find an island without compass or other navigational instruments. We can still learn from their example.