Leadership Lessons and the Oscars

And the winner is…La La Land! If you were tuned in like me, nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the acceptance speeches began for movie of the year. But about two minutes in, the room began to bustle, and you could see activity on the stage. What unfolded over the next few moments turned into a stunning, “What just happened?” As the La La Land crew discovered, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had read the wrong envelope, and the real winner was Moonlight.

Now let’s remember that this is a show that is held to the highest professional television standards. Apart from the unknown reactions and speeches of the winners themselves, everything else about the show is planned to the seconds for commercial break. As with anything, things are certain to go wrong, but announcing the wrong winner on what is considered the biggest award of the night is, well…unimaginable…until now.

Yet, in all that went wrong, I want to acknowledge the decisive and gracious responses that I believe displayed tremendous leadership in a highly charged, emotional moment.


First, the Academy admitted there was a mistake. While it seems like the logical thing to do, we only have the value of that insight a few days following. According to an article from Forbes, there are only two people who know the winners before they were announced. In a world where anything is possible, I would assume that there was potential that the Academy could have not even realized the mistake until it was too late, since no one, other than these two people knew the winners. They could have been left to address the mistake after the show had ended, especially since it was at the end of a live broadcast. Just consider how often we see leaders who won’t admit mistakes. Leaders and organizations don’t admit mistakes for a myriad of reasons, but it seems that there is relational trust built when someone actually takes responsibility for a failing. Ethically speaking, it’s just the “right” thing to do.


Second, the Academy could have been slow in their decision to determine a best response, checking to see what was wrong or right, wondering what they should do (committee meetings anyone?). They could have gathered a small group of people to get thoughts and ideas, and then they could have missed the chance to correct the mistake while still broadcasting. Maybe they did some of these things, but my guess is that someone made an immediate decision and acted swiftly to bring clarity and action. Either way, their internal communication was quick and definitive, and didn’t get caught up in some form of bureaucracy. So not only did they admit the mistake, they worked to correct it immediately!


Third, the response of the La La Land crew was a life lesson of grace under fire. The film’s producer, Jordan Horowitz jumped in to announce the mistake had been made. “There’s a mistake. ‘Moonlight,’ you guys won Best Picture,” said Horowitz from the stage. In a subsequent interview, Horowitz said, “ You know, just, like, that needed to end, you know? It just – it needed to be clear and decisive and clean.” He made the decision to announce it so that the spotlight could be on the rightful winners of the award. The two teams had spent the past several months together on the road in PR for their movies, and they have tremendous respect for one another.

Typically, life’s greatest lessons come from our mistakes, and this real life example is something that can be applied to any area of life. The best of organizations and leaders make mistakes. If you really think about it, mistakes are often derived from things we didn’t expect. We may not expect our employees to respond a particular way to a new policy, or for our customers to reject our new product. We may do something intended to benefit the entire company and workforce, but the result alienates many people. All sorts of issues can arise in the daily minutiae of running a business. And as fate seems to have it, it’s most likely the things that you could have never imagined that hit the hardest!


Quite simply, mistakes happen. Sometimes people lose their jobs because of mistakes, like the two accountants who have been banned from future Oscars. I personally prefer a more gracious tone. IBM’s Tom Watson was once asked if he was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost IBM $600,000. He replied, “No, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?” We need more leaders like that.


The big leadership lesson takeaways for me through this debacle are:

  1. When there is a mistake, admit it! Being honest and taking responsibility are some of the most powerful things you can do to maintain/rebuild trust.
  2. Once the mistake is discovered, don’t waste time in meetings and in hiding trying to figure out what to do. Learn how to act decisively, even if your initial response is a “bridge” designed to give you time to develop a more thought-out response.
  3. Remember that everyone makes mistakes, and grace is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. When an employee makes a mistake, how you handle the offense can make all the difference in the world.