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Three Leadership Lessons from La La Land’s Jordan Horowitz

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Jordan Horowitz, producer of "La La Land," shows the envelope revealing "Moonlight" as the true winner of best picture at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 26. Jordan Horowitz, producer of "La La Land," shows the envelope revealing "Moonlight" as the true winner of best picture at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 26. AP Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision

No doubt, you heard all about it: It’s the end of the Academy Awards ceremony and Hollywood icons Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have just announced that Best Picture goes to the popular musical "La La Land." The producers and cast joyfully come on stage to accept their Oscars and make their speeches. The main producer, Jordan Horowitz, goes first and then, as his co-producers start giving their thanks, the hub-bub begins. Guys with headphones are scrambling around the stage. Warren Beatty is huddling with people. For the first time all evening, the host, Jimmy Kimmel seems at a loss for words. And then, as reported in the Washington Post, Horowitz steps to the microphone and says:

“Guys, guys, I’m sorry. No. There’s a mistake,” he said. “‘Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture.”

“This is not a joke,” Horowitz repeated. “‘Moonlight’ has won best picture.”

Horowitz then held up the card that proved it: “‘Moonlight’ … Best Picture.”

You can read the details elsewhere about how it all happened, but the Oscars ended with the biggest surprise of all. The crew from one celebrated movie gave way to another when the producers, creators and actors from "Moonlight" came to the stage to accept the award that had been intended for them all along. It was an awkward, bizarre and, ultimately, inspiring moment that was handled with as much grace as possible because of the leadership exhibited by Jordan Horowitz. Rather than letting the situation spin further out of control, he seized the moment to correct the error and to ensure that the credit, praise and spotlight was given to those who had won it.

When asked later in the evening what possessed him to do what he did, Horowitz explained:

“Listen, I’m a producer. I gather things together and I change directions and I march things forward.”

If you replaced the word “producer” with “leader”, you’d have a pretty good working definition of leadership. There are a lot of admirable things that Horowitz and his team along with the Moonlight team did in that crazy few minutes, but there are three leadership lessons from Horowitz that I think are instructive for any leader who finds himself or herself in a fluid and charged situation:

1. See the Bigger Picture: Once he understood what was happening, Horowitz knew that he had to ensure that the true winners got their due and their moment at the ceremony itself. Later wouldn’t do. It would have been easy and understandable for him to focus on his own emotions after giving an acceptance speech that he hadn’t earned. Instead, he put himself in the shoes of the true winners and made sure that they were seen as that by the people in the room and those watching around the world.

2. Take Charge: In the midst of the chaos onstage, Horowitz took charge by stepping to the microphone a second time and saying what he said. One of my mentors, Ron Heifetz, likes to remind us that real leaders define the work that needs to be done and adapt to the situation. Horowitz did exactly that and, in doing so, saw that justice was done. His gracious example set the tone for his team and everyone else in the room.

3. Document the Truth: And, for good measure, he made sure that the true results were documented. If you watch the video again, you’ll see him taking the Best Picture card that says Moonlight from Jimmy Kimmel’s hand so he can hold it up for the camera and everyone watching to see. In doing so, he documented the truth and immediately put to rest any question about which film really won. That’s leadership presence in action. Horowitz had the eyes of millions of people on him at that moment. He knew it and used the moment to make sure everyone knew what really happened.

I often say that leaders control the weather. However they show up is predictive of how everyone around them will show up. That’s especially true in times of chaos and fluidity. By that standard, the Oscar for best leader at the Academy Awards goes to Jordan Horowitz. Congratulations, sir, and thanks for showing us how it’s done.

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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