By now, most know about the big Oscars snafu on Sunday night when the Academy accidently announced the wrong winner for this year’s Best Picture category. Oddly enough, the scene that followed on stage provided drama suitable for a motion picture, but it also offered leadership lessons for a nation starved for positive examples of grace under fire.
In hindsight, it seemed clear from the moment Warren Beatty opened the envelope that was supposed to contain the winner for Best Picture that something was amiss. Beatty, who has previously received more than a dozen Oscar nominations, is no stranger to the tension and gravity of the moment when a winner is announced on stage. He looked hesitant when he opened the envelope and seemed to be looking for help from his co-announcer, Faye Dunaway. Misreading Beatty’s hesitation as a playful effort to prolong the suspense, Dunaway, herself a three-time nominee and Best Actress winner, looked at the envelope’s contents and blurted out La La Land.
Moonlight had actually won. And as the nearly 35 million viewers soon saw, Beatty had been given the wrong envelope.
La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz handled a moment of crushing disappointment with grace and dignity. He was midway through his speech when he realized the mixup and tried to tell the audience and producers of Moonlight that they were not part of a strange prank.
There were no on-stage outbursts, nor subsequent efforts to cry foul. 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.
The incident likely left host Jimmy Kimmel feeling like a pitcher who threw a perfect game – until the ninth inning. His gentle humor throughout the evening had offered a perfect escape from the coarseness of recent political discourse. He was minutes away from celebrating his own successful night when the biggest error possibly in Oscar history ensued. Kimmel gamely joined the officials on stage and made a few efforts at humor.
It was in his closing sentence, however, that Kimmel acted like the perfect host of a party where a guest behaved badly. He reminded people that “it’s just an awards show,” and publicly blamed himself. His words in that moment had the effect of deflecting blame from others, as he shifted the burden onto himself, notwithstanding that he likely had no role in the debacle.
Following the telecast, Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP, the accounting firm that has long been responsible for counting Oscar ballots, issued a straight-forward apology. PwC refrained from the typical public apologies that grudgingly extend to “anyone who may have been hurt,” and instead apologized to the films, the presenters, and others who were impacted by the error. The company also vowed an investigation into how the mistake occurred.
The Moonlight winners, understandably stunned as they gave their remarks, did not express bitterness. Yet their lost time to shine on the international stage is particularly poignant as it deprived the world an opportunity to learn about the film’s underlying story of a young black male navigating his life of poverty and sexual identity as a gay man. These were Oscar firsts that deserved that chance to bask in a more public joy.
So the lesson leaders of any organization can take away from this is: own your mistakes; fix them; apologize for them; investigate them; and do the best you can to move on and learn from them.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of the book, Ladder Down: Success Strategies For Lawyers From Women Who Will Be Hiring, Reviewing, And Promoting You.