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CEO Praise of the Week: Disney

The Motley Fool readers have spoken, and I have heeded your cries. After months of pointing out CEO gaffes and faux pas, I've decided to make it a weekly tradition to also point out corporate leaders who are putting shareholder interests and that of the public first and are generally deserving of a kudos from investors. For reference, here is last week's selection.

This week, I'm going to show you why Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) CEO Bob Iger is not only a great corporate leader, but a role model for other CEOs to follow.

Kudos to you, Mr. Iger
Being one of the many faces of the entertainment industry with multiple theme parks, cruise lines, hotels, and movie productions under its corporate umbrella, the last thing Disney wanted to see was a lackluster jobs report in May and the unemployment rate ticking higher. Wage growth is already being outpaced by inflation, which is typically bad news for consumer discretionary spending -- and discretionary spending is what makes Disney's world go 'round.

We're seeing this pessimism translate into layoffs and restructurings for many of Disney's competitors. Theme-park operator Six Flags (NYSE: SIX  ) was forced to cut its workforce during and shortly after its bankruptcy nearly three years ago in order to bring costs in line with its peers. Also, DreamWorks Studios noted in April that it would be laying off 10 of its 80 employees across various departments.

With so much pessimism built up in the entertainment industry, the last thing you'd expect is for Disney to be hiring, right? Think again!

During Disney's latest quarterly conference call, Iger outlined a plan to bring an additional 1,000 jobs to Disney's U.S. theme parks over the next three years. But that was just half the story. Disney is specifically going to target military veterans in its "Heroes Work Here" campaign to fill these positions, giving them the training they will need to succeed, as well as their very own section on Disney's website to apply for these positions. Whether you're a warmonger or a pacifist, this is undeniably a class act.

A step above his peers
On top of providing jobs to military veterans in need and bringing jobs to an aching Californian economy, Mr. Iger and Disney are keeping shareholders' interest in mind by staying one step ahead of its peers in other respects as well.

In the cruise line industry, when Carnival (NYSE: CCL  ) suffered not one, but two cruise-related calamities in just a six-week period, both it and Royal Caribbean (NYSE: RCL  ) noted a dramatic drop-off in bookings. As for Disney, it hardly felt the slowdown: Its cruise lines were 75% booked for the entire year back in January!

From a motion-picture perspective, Disney hasn't always been on top of the mountain (ahem, John Carter), but its successes far outweigh its failures. This week, Marvel's The Avengers became the third-highest-grossing film ever domestically and second-highest-grossing movie globally.

Disney's shareholder-first ethos is also a model from which its peers could learn a thing or two. In December the company announced the largest dividend increase in its history (50%) to $0.60 annually. That dividend payment has nearly doubled in just the past five years. On top of this payout, Disney approved a $16 billion share repurchase program in 2011. Although I'd rather see that money go directly into shareholders' pockets, it's another indication that the company believes in its long-term business plan and the real value of its shares.

Two thumbs up
Hiring in a weak economic environment and giving those jobs to military veterans is worth two thumbs up by itself. Tack on the fact that Disney is always one step ahead of its competition and is paying out more each year to its shareholders in dividends, and you have a CEO worthy of a round of applause. Well done, Mr. Iger.

Do you have a CEO you'd like to nominate for this prestigious weekly honor? Shoot me an email and a one- or two-sentence description of why your choice deserves next week's nomination, and you just may see your nominee in the spotlight.

Here at the Fool, we love management teams that have strong track records of rewarding their shareholders, which is why I invite you to download a copy of our latest special report, "Secure Your Future With 9 Rock-Solid Dividend Stocks." This report contains a wide array of companies and sectors that are likely to keep your best interests in mind, just like Disney, regardless of whether the market is up or down. Best of all, it's completely free for a limited time, so don't miss out!

Editor's note: A previous version of this article erroneously attributed layoffs to DreamWorks Animation rather than DreamWorks Studios. The Fool regrets the error.

Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He loves giving credit when credit is due. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Disney. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that always gets two thumbs up.

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