The Value of Black Sheep

Retailing Black Sheep

Cutting through a shop in Tokyo Disneyland’s Westernland (their version of Frontierland) on one occasion I was totally surprised to come across a long-forgotten Disney character, Danny.

Dear Danny Merchandise in Westernland at Tokyo Disneyland. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Tokyo Disney’s retail always amazes me–the whole Duffy bear thing being one such example. But this was really different. A Dear Danny merchandise line had been developed around an obscure Disney character. If you’re not familiar with this character, Danny comes from the Disney live action, animated film, So Dear To My Heart.  It’s a nearly obscure film that dates back to 1948, over 70 years ago. And here is Tokyo Disney Resort finding value in selling merchandise centered around this easily forgotten character. In fact, they were still selling more of the merchandise when I returned two years later to this same shop.

Disney’s Black Sheep Tale

What’s the story of this little lamb? This is a tale of a young boy Jeremiah, who is determined to not only raise a black-wool lamb rejected by its mother, but to show off that pet, Danny, at the Pike County Fair. He names the creature after Dan Patch, who in real life was a famous, successful horse. But that title makes no impact on Jeremiah’s grandmother, who seeing no value in this lamb, declares, “You have no business being a pet anyhow.”

Danny is mischievous, easily gets in trouble, and eventually butts the judge in the rear at the county fair. He doesn’t win the blue ribbon at the event, but the judge, recognizing that Jeremiah made do with this creature of no special pedigree, gives the boy and his lamb an award of Special Merit, an honor bestowed for the first time in forty years. 

The film has real life parallels to Walt Disney, whose studio was struggling in the late 40’s. Unlike today where it has emerged as the biggest mega corporation in Hollywood, the studio of that era was modest and faced humble circumstances. Walt, struggling to get back to business after the impact of World War II, did what he could do to make do with what he had.

That message shows in the film. Animated friends come to life to support Jeremiah, including a wise owl who states “just because you’re a little old sheep doesn’t mean you can’t get to the top of the heap.” He explains that it’s “Whatchat do with whatcha got.” Take a look at the following video:

The Value of Black Sheep

Walt Disney loved this So Dear to My Heart, as it took him back to his own childhood growing up as a kid in Missouri. In fact, the real Dan Patch’s grandson lived on his father’s farm. But importantly, Walt understood building on the strengths of others, and finding a place and a role for those who may have seen themselves as outside the norm. Perhaps this is one of his greatest traits was seeing the potential of the individuals he assigned to a particular piece of work. He simply saw in others what they didn’t see in themselves.

I have often heard people refer to themselves or others as Black Sheep. It’s typically a demeaning term that suggests that they are an outcast–that they aren’t in step with others in their family or close circle. But in truth, Black Sheep have enormous possibility. Black Sheep create value because they are “out of the box”. They don’t accept conformity, but rather provides a different perspective or approach.

Individuals using this expression, are often discarding themselves as not being of worth, or value, or merit to others. They see themselves as an outcast. But in truth, Black Sheep offer tremendous value because they “do with whatcha got, and not with whatcha not”. 

Incredible Black Sheep for The Incredibles

Here’s an example of how Black Sheep make a difference. Brad Bird, creator of Pixar’s The Incredibles had a purpose for Black Sheep, which he described as “restless contributors with unconventional ideas”. He shared the following in an interview with the McKinsey Quarterly, he shared the following:

“The Incredibles was everything that computer-generated animation had trouble doing. It had human characters, it had hair, it had water, it had fire, it had a massive number of sets. The creative heads were excited about the idea of the film, but once I showed story reels of exactly what I wanted, the technical teams turned white. They took one look and thought, “This will take ten years and cost $500 million. How are we possibly going to do this?”


Disney Pixar The Incredibles.

“So I said, ‘Give us the black sheep. I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to. Give us all the guys who are probably headed out the door.’ A lot of them were malcontents because they saw different ways of doing things, but there was little opportunity to try them, since the established way was working very, very well.

“We gave the black sheep a chance to prove their theories, and we changed the way a number of things are done here. For less money per minute than was spent on the previous film, Finding Nemo, we did a movie that had three times the number of sets and had everything that was hard to do. All this because the heads of Pixar gave us leave to try crazy ideas.”

Souvenirs for Your Organization:

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do you see value in those who see themselves as black sheep?
  • Do you see value in yourself, even though you deem yourself as being a black sheep to others?
  • How do you create value of those who see themselves as not part of the main stream?
  • How are you making do with what you got?
  • How do you build on your own strengths?
  • How do you award those who can think “out of the box”?

I personally know individuals close to me who see themselves as black sheep. I wish they could see their own intrinsic value. I wish they could see how they offer something that others can’t. If they can find that in themselves, they will win their own special ribbon of merit. And that reward will be as unique as their contribution makes it.

Speaking of “Doin’ With Watcha Got” my sister post and podcast furthers this topic as we talk about the top of Spaceship Earth and building in garages.

Ribbons on display at Tokyo Disneyland. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

And for more ideas about how you can succeed as a leader, please visit Disney, Leadership and You, available through Amazon. Stories from nearly a hundred artists, imagineers, executives and front line personnel share what it means to be a leader, with ideas that you can take back to not only your organization, but into your life. Check it out!

Disney, Leadership and You
Disney, Leadership and You, written by J. Jeff Kober.

J. Jeff Kober

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