This year’s Oscars became a historic must-see show that had millions of people talking about it in the following days – but not for the best reason. As just about everyone knows by now, the three hour and 49 minute broadcast came to be defined by the final five minutes when La La Land was announced as the winner for Best Picture, only for it to be revealed shortly after that Moonlight was the actual winner of the night’s most anticipated award. The snafu reminds us that lessons in leadership extend far beyond the boardroom. A true test of a leader is acting with integrity in the most difficult situations – including standing on stage in front of millions of people.
I watched the show just as stunned by the snafu as the millions of other viewers around the world, but shortly after, it occurred to me that the drama that unfolded on the stage raised into sharp relief four crucial leadership lessons.
As the night’s final award was about to be revealed, Hollywood icon Warren Beatty seemed perplexed when he opened the envelope. We now know that he was reading the card for Best Actress Winner Emma Stone, instead of the envelope he should have been handed. While Beatty was clearly hesitant, and while he was not to blame for the mix-up, his response reveals leadership lesson number one: If you aren’t sure about information you have been given—say something. Thoughtful leaders aren’t afraid to push back if something doesn’t feel right to them. At the Oscars we saw a baffled Beatty allow his co-presenter, Faye Dunaway, to announce the incorrect winner, compounding the problem. This leads us to leadership learning moment number two: If you don’t feel good about the information, don’t let someone else take it and run with it. Caught up in the moment, Dunaway didn’t examine the card, instead she ran with it and took us all with her.
Following Sunday night’s incident, it’s been reported that Brian Cullinan, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, had taken pictures and posted on social media just moments before the envelope blunder. Many have suggested that this self-inflicted distraction led Cullinan to mistakenly give the presenters the wrong envelope. Together, Cullinan and another PwC employee further exacerbated the problem by failing to immediately correct the error, instead allowing minutes to pass while the La La Land team came onstage and began their acceptance speeches, providing us with leadership learning moments numbers three and four: Pay attention to the task at-hand, as a moment of stolen glory on Twitter is not worth taking down the Oscars and your company; and: If you do make a mistake, take responsibility immediately. Not only was there a gap in revealing the correct information in the moment, which created unnecessary woe for the recipients it took hours for PwC to issue a statement accepting responsibility.
Once stagehands finally corrected the error, La La Land Producer Jordan Horowitz displayed true leadership. Horowitz courageously and graciously stepped forward to be the first to publicly correct the error. In what must have been a painful personal moment of disappointment, he showed clarity, certainty and grace as he handed over the trophy to Moonlight’s production team.
No one expects people (or companies) to be perfect all the time, but when a company is being paid to get one important thing right, there is no room for self-inflicted error. Everywhere leaders are being asked to be at their best and the 2017 Oscars gave us the chance to see the best and worst of leadership on display.