It will undoubtedly be Hollywood’s most famous unscripted moment ever. In front of a worldwide audience of close to 33 million people, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope and presented the award for Best Picture to “La La Land” at the Academy Awards.
Except that movie wasn’t actually the winner of the Best Picture Academy Award, as we all now know. A partner with PricewaterhouseCooper had handed the stars the wrong envelope, a mistake that will follow him the rest of his life.
In the midst of emotional acceptance speeches, producer of “La La Land” Jordan Horowitz learned of the mistake. He immediately stepped right up to the microphone and said, “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture.” He stayed on stage during the resulting chaos and graciously said, “I’m gonna be really proud to hand this to my friends from ‘Moonlight.’”
The young producer is being heralded for his grace under pressure. He did what a good leader does under a stressful situation: he took charge and handled the problem.
In TV interviews afterwards, Jordan said, “My heart was a little broken, but it’s one of those things that just gets thrown at you. You can choose to lean into it or break away from it.”
In my career in the turnaround industry, I often deal with leaders in a crisis situation. Things do get thrown at them. They lost their number 2, their biggest customer went to a competitor, they can’t make their loan payments. Whatever it is, a business is going to face tough times.
I’ve seen a full range of responses from leaders in these situations. They may choose to be dishonest with their lenders, they may put their heads in the sand or they may continue blindly down the same path that put them in that position, hoping for a miracle.
The first step these leaders have to take is to face reality. They have to take a good luck at what the situation is so they can deal with it. Then a good leader has to take charge.
As Jordan said, “It happened really fast. Listen, I’m a producer. I gather things together and I change directions and I march things forward.”
In a nutshell, that’s what happens with CEOs. They gather the information they need, make decisions and march forward. Luckily, most leaders don’t have to do so on live TV in front of tens of millions of people.
Another company trying to march things forward right now is PricewaterhouseCooper, the second largest accounting firm in the world. The New York City-based company has overseen the Oscars balloting and presentation for 83 years, an association it takes great pride in and leverages with new and existing clients.
Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner, was in the audience at the Academy Awards when the incident happened – that moment when two members of his firm came out of the wings and his business would soon move into the spotlight.
“I knew something was up,” he said in an article in the New York Times discussing the moment when he saw the two PwC employees interrupting the best picture acceptance speeches. “It’s not their job to come out on stage.”
The reviews for PwC’s performance that night came in and they were not good. Many people had comments along the lines of “You had one job.” Les Moonves, Chairman and CEO of CBS, said “If they were my accountant, I would fire them.”
PwC apologized for the error and took full responsibility. Monday night, 24 hours after the mistake, PwC issued a statement that read in part, “For the past 83 years, the Academy has entrusted PwC with the integrity of the awards process during the ceremony, and last night we failed the Academy.”
(Soon after, the firm placed the blame on partner Brian Cullinan, U.S. board chairman and managing partner for PwC’s Southern California practice. I was surprised that they singled out one of their employees so quickly, which shows a lack of support for a partner of their firm.)
What happens to Brian’s career, PwC’s reputation and whether they are around for year 84 of the Oscars remains to be seen. Both leaders stepped forward to take charge. But while Jordan handled the crisis perfectly, Tim took responsibility for the mistake, but in doing so threw his partner under the bus – which is not the way to handle a crisis.