Here Are 4 Leadership Lessons You Can Learn From Will Smith’s 10-Year Oscars Ban

On Friday afternoon, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences banned Will Smith from attending or participating in any of its events, including the Oscars, for the next 10 years. It likely would have also revoked his membership, but Smith had already voluntarily resigned. These actions were–of course–a response to Smith slapping Chris Rock onstage during the Oscars ceremony after Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, the result of a medical condition.

Any fisticuffs at the Oscars would be big news, especially since the assailant took the stage shortly afterward to accept the Best Actor award. But this story has taken on a life of its own, “the slap heard round the world,” as my Inc. colleague Justin Bariso put it. I think one reason for the story’s popularity is that it’s something of a Rorschach test. Some observers see Smith’s slap as the entitled behavior of a man who’s been a celebrity since his teens, and say he should have been dragged away in handcuffs before he ever received his Oscar. Others see it as a rare moment of redress against the years of disparagement Black women have endured, especially about their hair. Some see it as a threat to the free speech of stand-up comics everywhere, while others say Rock deserves to be punished as well for the cruelty of his joke.

Whatever else the incident was, it was a great big headache for the Academy, which didn’t really need one. Criticisms over lack of diversity and dwindling viewership have plagued the Academy Awards in recent years, and the fact that NBC chose not to broadcast the Golden Globes this year may not have inspired confidence about the Oscars’ future. The Academy’s Board of Governors have faced harsh criticism for their handling–or non-handling–of the incident on Oscars night. They moved a planned meeting up by 10 days so they could vote on whether and how to discipline Smith. They are surely hoping that the decision and their open letter about it (which you can read at the end of this piece) will finally put the matter to rest.

It just might. Whatever the result, there’s a lot of leaders can learn from what the Academy did and didn’t do.

1. If you mishandle something in the moment, go back and apologize.

It’s extremely easy to make the wrong decision when you’re handling a crisis in the moment. I’ve done it, and I bet you have too. When you do, it’s usually smart to backtrack, apologize, and explain your thinking at the time. The Academy did all that.

“During our telecast, we did not adequately address the situation in the room,” they wrote. “For this, we are sorry. This was an opportunity for us to set an example for our guests, viewers and our Academy family around the world, and we fell short–unprepared for the first.”

2. Make sure no actions have consequences.

Most observers agree that, whatever the provocation, it’s never OK to hit someone, let alone climb up on a stage to do so while that person is performing. The Academy acknowledged just how wrong Smith’s assault on Rock was, saying that this “unacceptable and harmful behavior” had overshadowed the celebratory event. The 10-year ban of a high-profile celebrity from Academy events is a strong message to both the industry and the public. It helps that Smith has taken responsibility for his actions, and issued a statement saying he accepts the Academy’s decision.

Some have argued that the Academy should also rescind Smith’s Oscar, but there is no precedent for that. Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, both of whom went to prison for years after committing many acts of sexual abuse did not have their awards taken away. The only time the Academy ever rescinded an award is when it gave one to a documentary and then discovered it was nominated in the wrong year.

3. Thank the people who help you get through tough moments.

The Academy’s letter included a note of thanks to Chris Rock for “maintaining his composure under circumstances.” That thanks was very deserved because not only did Rock maintain his composure, he actually placated Smith from the stage right after being struck, and then went on to give out awards as he was meant to do.

4. Whatever you do, expect to be criticized for it.

A glance at social media after the announcement showed many people complaining that the punishment is too harsh and perhaps racially motivated. Then again, many others insist that Smith should have been arrested or at least removed from the theater, and certainly not allowed to make the lengthy speech he did. There is little agreement among the public about what–if anything–should happen to Smith after this incident.

But some social media commenters have said they don’t care much anymore, and that it’s time we all got on with our lives. Now that the Academy has announced its decision, we just might.

Here’s the Academy’s full statement:

The 94th Oscars were meant to be a celebration of the many individuals in our community who did incredible work this past year; However, those moments were overshadowed by the unacceptable and harmful behavior we saw Mr. Smith exhibit on stage.

During our telecast, we did not adequately address the situation in the room. For this, we are sorry. This was an opportunity for us to set an example for our guests, viewers and our Academy family around the world, and we fell short–unprepared for the first.

Today, the Board of Governors convened a meeting to discuss how best to respond to Will Smith’s actions at the Oscars, in addition to accepting his resignation. The Board has decided, for a period of 10 years from April 8, 2022, Mr. Smith shall not be permitted to attend any Academy events or programs, in person or virtually, including but not limited to the Academy Awards.

We want to express our deep gratitude to Mr. Rock for maintaining his composure under extraordinary circumstances. We also want to thank our hosts, nominees, presenters and winners for their poise and grace during our telecast.

This action we are taking today in response to Will Smith’s behavior is a step toward a larger goal of protecting the safety of our performers and guests, and restoring trust in the Academy. We also hope this can begin a time of healing and restoration for all involved and impacted.

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