Lessons in Leadership from the 2017 Academy Awards

If you haven’t heard about the Oscar’s colossal Best Picture mix up, do yourself a favor and catch up:

In the final stretch of the 89th Academy Awards, with only a single category left to announce, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announce the wrong film as the winner of the coveted Best Picture category.

Notwithstanding the likely embarrassment of Academy Awards producers, the Best Picture snafu and the way it was handled actually serves as a valuable lesson in teamwork and leadership.

Don’t become complacent

By the end of a very long awards ceremony, having successfully run the whole show without a hitch, the producers of the Academy Awards probably thought they had the show in the bag when it came time to announce the Best Picture award. Also, considering the fact that not once in the 89 year history of the Academy Awards has there ever been a mix up announcing a winner, it’s safe to assume that no one from the awards production team saw this coming.

The lesson here is that mistakes can happen at any time; and that they most often happen when you least expect them; so don’t become complacent and count your chickens (or Oscars) before they hatch (are awarded).

Understand the team’s needs and communication style

As a reticent Warren Beatty turned to his co-presenter for help, a quick actioned Faye Dunaway read the envelop announcing La La Land as the winner of the Best Picture category. Beatty, who is no novice to the awards ceremony stage (both as presenter, nominee, and winner) knew when he opened the envelop that something was not quite right. In a moment of pressure and uncertainty, he turned to co-presenter Faye Dunaway, but Dunaway mistook Beatty’s reticence to announce the winner as an attempt at a suspenseful and comedic pause.

 Be always listening to your team members verbal and nonverbal cues. Anticipate their needs and what they are telling you indirectly. Beatty tried to signal to Faye that something was off, but his signaling was misinterpreted. Also, if something seems amiss, it probably is. Make your concerns more apparent to your team members.

Don’t be afraid to take the lead in times of crisis  

It took the span of nearly three acceptance speeches from the La La Land production team before Oscar stage management determined a mistake had been made. But it was La La Land Producer Jordan Horowitz, not anyone of the Oscar producers (who were also on stage at that time) that stepped up and officially announced the mistake–proclaiming:“This is not a joke. Moonlight won Best Picture.”

Horowitz could have stood by passively and let the Oscar staff declare the mistake at but instead he stepped up and took charge in a situation that clearly needed a leader to set things right and clear the confusion. As he noted in an interview, Horowitz felt a responsibility to bring clarity to the moment and give those associated with Moonlight their chance to shine.” From Hororwitz’s actions we can learn the importance of taking leadership in a confusing and disruptive situation to set the group on the right course. Correcting a mistake, even if it is not your own, will show honesty, an ability to lead, and the desire to do the right thing.

Take accountability and debrief

The following evening on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel stated, “There was mass confusion. People on stage were confused, the audience was confused, people watching at home were confused. No one was doing anything, and then Warren Beatty steps up to explain.”

Beatty tells the audience, “I opened the envelope and it said, ‘Emma Stone–La La Land’ That’s why I took such a long look at Faye, and at you, I wasn’t trying to be funny.” Even if the mistake is not directly your fault, if you’re working with a group you probably still played some part in it. Take accountability, and explain your actions that may have contributed to the crisis and confusion.

Finally, Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP., the company who tallies the votes and distributes the envelopes released a statement taking responsibility for the mix up and apologizing.  

Everyone plays a role

The audience stayed calm and did not escalate the situation into further chaos. In the midst of the confusion, with the production team of two movies on stage and no one knowing what to do, Kimmel explained humorously on his show the following night, that it was audience member Denzel Washington who guided the Oscar host in his next moves,

“I see Denzel Washington in the front row trying to get my attention, pointing and yelling ‘Barry,’ and eventually I figure out the Barry Jenkins, the Director of Moonlight, is standing right behind me and Denzel wants me to get him to the microphone to make a speech. Which, you know, made sense. Thank God Denzel was there to make sense. So I listened to Denzel, as one should, and I went and got Barry, and he gave a speech.”  

Keep it all in perspective and laugh when you can

Mistakes happen, and they’re not the end of the world. After a mistake has been corrected, learn from it, and move forward. And it doesn’t hurt if you can find some humor in the situation.

After Horowitz announced the mix up and declared that Moonlight was the winner, host Jimmy Kimmel, took to the mic to ease the tension of the moment with a joke, “This is very unfortunate what happened. Personally I blame Steve Harvey for this…Why can’t we just hand out a whole bunch of Oscars?” Finally, Kimmel, ended the ceremony by deflecting blame off of others and shifting the burden onto himself, though he likely had no role in the debacle.“Well I don’t know what happened. I blame myself for this. Let’s remember, it’s just an awards show.”

As an article from Fortune stated, the scene “provided drama suitable for a motion picture, but it also offered leadership lessons for a nation starved for positive examples of grace under fire.”

The lessons leaders of any organization can take away from this is are: don’t become complacent in your success; own your mistakes; fix them; Debrief what happened; and apologize for them; keep the gravity of the situation in perspective; and, find the humor in the situation whenever possible.

For even more lessons from this Oscar flub see this Inc. article for public speaking takeaways.

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