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5 Things Lawyers Can Learn from the 2011 Oscars

As amazing as 2010 was for movies, with Inception, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, Toy Story 3, and The Black Swan all coming to the silver screen in the same year, the Academy Awards ceremony was pretty awful.

Nonetheless, we can look to Hollywood for some do’s and don’ts, and I’m not referring to the dresses on the red carpet. For instance:

1) Have the Right People On the Bus, But In the Right Seats

James Franco and Anne Hathaway are brilliant and talented people. But last night hosting the Oscars, they were about as entertaining as some of the kids from my high school drama department. Why they bombed is not due to their highly skilled entertaining capabilities, rather, they were in the “wrong seats on the bus”, placed in a context in which they had little chance for success.

As Jim Collins explains in the business bestseller Good to Great, hiring “who” is the most important thing in building an exceptional organization. “What” they do comes next. “The right people will do the right things and deliver the best results they’re capable of, regardless of the incentive system,” writes Collins.

So if someone great isn’t performing optimally in a role they’re given, think about putting them in a different seat with other responsibilities.

2) Know When to Step Out Of The Spotlight

Last night, Kirk Douglas extended the Best Supporting Actress award ad nauseum, transforming what could have been a distinguished, heart-rending spectacle into an nation-wide squirm-fest as embarrassed people all of the country resisted the urge to immediately shut off their televisions. Eventually, after three or four teaser delays, Douglas announced the winner.

Unfortunately the Vaudeville hook was retired some 70 years ago. Instead of the Oscar focusing on the nominees and the actress who won, that award became about Mr. Douglas. Attention any prima donna attorneys out there: grabbing the spotlight from another does not curry favor, from your peers, from a jury, or from a judge. Know when you’ve said your piece, and move on.

3) Enthusiasm is Infectious

One of the bright spots in an evening where even the applause was lackluster was Luke Matheny’s acceptance speech. Winner of Best Short Film, Luke bounded onstage and delivered a spirited acceptance speech with a mop of huge curly black hair and a charming smile (Full disclosure: Luke is a fellow Northwestern alum. Go Luke!).

Your mood affects others. And when Matheny was rocketed into emotional hyperspace with his Oscar win, he brought energy, enthusiasm, and humor to a completely dead room and lifted the spirits of bored viewers in living rooms across the country.

Enthusiasm and positive emotions create positive outcomes in the workplace, according to a Berkley/Standford study. Volumes are written on the topic of happiness=good business, famously by Martin Seligman with his work in Learned Optimism.

Obviously, happiness grows when negativity is absent, and you can actually communicate more effectively, make better decisions, and in general, have a more successful organization with enthusiasm. It’s probably a lot harder to hire Luke then it was yesterday, but when his kind of energy is in the office, you’re in good shape.

4) Realize Who’s Important and Express Gratitude

How much more do you enjoy someone’s Oscar acceptance speech when they issue a heartfelt thank you? Last night, Best Director Tom Hooper stepped aside from the typical Hollywood-rattle-off and told an amazing story about his mother finding the source material for what would become The King’s Speech. It was interesting, heartfelt, and tender, made an impact on anyone watching, and you could tell how profoundly Mr. Hooper meant what he said.

Gratitude, more than any other character trait, is believed by psychologists to be the most critical ingredient to happiness. We explored this subject in an earlier blog post, The Enormous Psychological Importance of Gratitude, and pulled this quote from Wikipedia which sums it up:

A large body of recent work has suggested that people who are more grateful have higher levels of well-being. Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships Grateful people also have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance

5) Sieze the Day

Every year, when Hollywood pays tribute to their deceased, I have a Dead Poet’s Society moment (specifically the scene where Robin Williams shows old class photographs to his students). We’re seeing images of actors and actresses in the prime of youth, who are beautiful and full of life. But they’re dead. For some reason, the Oscar memorial montage makes me hyper-aware of how fleeting life is.

You’re not going to be young forever. Your aspirations for partner? You’ll get there before you know it, and you’ll have a whole host of other problems to deal with and opportunities to look forward to. There’s always a bigger house, and there’s always different headaches, so you might as well take a look at a snapshot of your life and enjoy what you have now.

Furthermore, one of the keys to happiness, and thus productivity and a successful firm, is getting lost in your work in a state called “flow”, described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly as “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.”

So hooray for Hollywood, kind of. I’m not sure that the Oscars are always ripe for gleaning personal insight, but in the case of the 2011 awards show, there’s plenty of stuff to chew on.