Current Events

Leading to an Oscar

Oscar statue photo courtesy the Academy Awards.

Oscar Statue image courtesy the Academy Awards.

I think I was thirteen when I picked up my first James Bond novel. My parents didn’t know – I was too young (in their eyes) to be reading such a racy novel. Not surprisingly, I loved absolutely everything about double-O-seven. Soon after, the first Bond movie arrived on screen. Now I could devour the novels and sneak out to see it all play out on film – doubling the thrills of reading on its own.

This all helped me decide who I wanted to be when I grew up: James Bond (American version). Skills, thrills, brains, bravery, and beautiful women. Who can argue with a combination like that? Also, if that didn’t work out, maybe I could be a rock star or a baseball player (at least in my dreams).

Although James Bond is not with us much in print anymore, he continues to be with us at movie theaters. Skyfall, the newest Bond flick, has been nominated for a Bond record 5 Oscars (the previous 22 movies only received 7 combined) though it missed out as a nominee for best director or best picture. Even though it’s missing from the slate of candidates, many worthwhile films have been selected, and the Arts sections of our newspapers are abuzz with Oscar-talk and Oscar-related news. (This is a fine way to distract those of us who live in cold weather from thinking about arctic chills.)

Although the actresses and actors are the real stars, not only of the movies themselves but of the awards discussions as well, the directors are the true leaders of every successful movie. Directing a major motion picture is a huge undertaking: it takes a tremendously talented leader to succeed. Thus, a recent newspaper article that presented edited excerpts of an interview with six notable directors piqued my interest. They included Ben Affleck (Argo), Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock), Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), and two others whom I don’t quote here.

A simple premise in leadership is that a leader must work with the people who will be doing the job. Ruling by fiat may be effective in crises and movie productions might feel like they are constantly facing crises, but everyday leadership requires the enlistment of motivated support. Thus, movie directors might have chairs with their names on them and bull horns that help them get everyone’s attention but they must still work with people to do their jobs well.

Thus, it was noteworthy to hear Sacha Gervasi say that, two days before they began shooting, he convened all of his key department head members and, “Rather than doing a reading with the actors, I cast my department heads in the roles … it was wonderful, because everyone connected, and it put them right into the material… their heads and their hearts… I wanted to communicate that feeling of, there’s a reason that we’re doing this, you know? Fundamentally, you can’t spend two years of your life working on something unless you have a real emotional connection with it.”

David Russell took things further, “That’s why I start every day in the van. I want the actors, I want the head of every department to come with me in the van at the very first moment I arrive to talk about what the day is, so that everyone has a very intimate feeling of what we’re doing. Because the movie is not out there on the set with all those extras trying to look at the camera. You can get out there and the energy’s very dissipated, and it’s very chaotic and the whole thing can be misdirected, the energy. And you want everyone to be feeling what you feel in your heart.”

Both directors highlighted the need to get their critical performers on the same page, in terms of the material and particularly in terms of the emotions and energy that are associated with it. They also seemed to realize that they needed to convey their vision – implicitly and personally – to make sure that their team members were thinking and feeling what they were thinking and feeling.

They also talked about the incredible risks that movie directors must take. (This is true of almost all leaders.) Tom Hooper noted that, “that sense of taking a risk was incredibly exciting, not just for me but the entire team.” David Russell, probably the least seasoned of the directors in the group, also noted that “You can be more scared than (your actors) are, but you always have to be the one who’s saying ‘This is going to be fine, we know exactly what we’re doing,’ even though inside, you might have just been saying to your producer, ‘What is going to happen in this scene? I have no idea – help me.’”

Leaders always take risks because they never know in advance what they might need to address or what they might actually say, particularly at critical moments. It also helps, enormously, to have a confidant whom you can trust with your most basic fears and feelings, because almost every leader has these kinds of thoughts, and no one has all of the answers.

I also couldn’t help noticing how these great directors also had a Do Nothing! approach to leadership, especially with their actors, who can easily succumb to the temptation to act too much. Ben Affleck, for instance, said that, “The one thing I say the most, all the time, is just stop, don’t do anything. Because the actors sometimes feel this onus to come and perform… I tell them it’s not your job to make the movie. It’s my job.” In the same way, everyday leaders must facilitate and orchestrate: if only their team members would simply perform their tasks well, it would make the leaders’ jobs much easier.

Affleck also noted how important the cast is. When he was asked, “Is there a percentage you can put to how important casting is of all the decisions you make” Answer: “a hundred percent.”

His last quote in the article was also particularly telling, as he again conveyed how important (ironically) it is for directors to not be directive. “This is a weird story, but a friend said you should come to horse therapy. And I was like, what is horse therapy? And you walk this horse around a circle with a rope, and you go up and touch them. But if you tell the horse, if you kind of pull on them, if you were sort of insistent, the horse will stand there. It won’t go with you. But if you sort of be calm, be sure of yourself … and then you start to walk, and the horse starts to walk, you know?”

When directors have great scripts and their people do their jobs well, acclaim follows. Even if they don’t win awards themselves, directors almost always get a lot of credit from actors who win Oscars. Our more run-of-the-mill organizational lives don’t typically provide these kinds of award ceremonies, and even when they do, they are rarely so well publicized. But the lessons of great directors apply extremely well: we would all do well as leaders to

  1. Help people get involved and see the job the way we see it
  2. Build excitement and energy in effective directions
  3. Realize and embrace the fact that, as leaders, we are always taking risks
  4. Also realize that even though we may not always be confident and clear, we must communicate a sense of confidence and calm
  5. Encourage people to do their own jobs well but not to overdo them
  6. Choose your team carefully when you have the luxury of choice
  7. Be calm and depend on the fact that, even if you don’t know everything, you probably know more than other people do about your job, and they need to see your quiet resolve.

Then, a final step: reward people who do well. You may not be able to give them an Oscar, but recognition is a truly tremendous motivator: it doesn’t cost much and it can have amazingly positive effects.


John Horn: “Six filmmakers talk shop.” Chicago Tribune, December 28, 2012, Arts & Entertainment section, page 6.



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Do Nothing by J. Keith Murnighan

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