Will Smith’s Slap at the Oscars: What Leaders Can Learn

This year seems to be quickly filling up with events in the unusual category: “Things I never thought I’d witness / experience in my life”.

Last Sunday gave us another example: the shocking behavior of one of the biggest celebrities of our times, Will Smith at the 94th Oscars ceremony:

He punched the presenter, Chris Rock in the face.

In front of his colleagues. In front of the Academy. In front of 13.7 million viewers worldwide.

And most importantly, in front of his wife, whose dignity he was trying to “protect” by this violent act.

If I was Jada Pinkett Smith, I would feel mortified to witness my husband behave like this.

And I would feel humiliated that he thought that behaving with a complete lack of class and emotional intelligence was the right way to respond to somebody else for behaving….. with a complete lack of class and emotional intelligence.

And I would feel annoyed that he took an opportunity away from me to settle the score myself.

What we witnessed in the Oscars night were examples of two things: toxic masculinity, and really, really bad leadership, both by Will Smith, and The Academy. Normally, when somebody assaults others, (s)he is escorted out of the building at once, no discussion.

Smith wasn’t. Instead, he was allowed to accept his Oscar and stay and enjoy the evening as if nothing had happened. I still can’t get my head around this.

But coming back to Smith, whatever his intention was, his choice to react to words with violence is troubling on many levels:

  1. He is a very visible man, famous and influential. Many people look up to him because of his celebrity status. What message, and what example did he send to them? That if you don’t like what somebody is saying, you have the right to interrupt an event and hit somebody in the face to demonstrate how displeased you are?
  2. He is a father. He is supposed to role-model the right values for his kids. Choosing violence to respond to a joke, no matter how cruel and callous, sent a really bad message to them. He not only demonstrated undignified and uncivilized behavior, but also entitlement. He might have as well said to his kids: “If you are powerful, wealthy and famous, you can slap people and shout at them if you don’t like something they say, without any consequence to you.”
  3. He assumed that his wife was defenseless and needed him to be her “knight in shining armor”. By assuming this part, he simply took away her right to respond. Without even as much as consulting her whether she wanted a reaction at that point.
    I bet what Jada Pinkett Smith needs in her vulnerable moment as she struggles with a health issue is people around her behaving with respect and empathy, not a slap-happy “savior” who takes things into his hands on her behalf.

 

What really took me by surprise was not the fact of physical violence alone, but Smith’s shocking lack of emotional regulation and self-control.

Because here is the critical piece: as Smith was self-righteously marching towards the stage, then walking up the steps, then walking up to Christ Rock he had enough time to breathe, self-check and control his rage.

The fact that he didn’t tells me that he chose not to.

Subjecting women to cruel jokes in front of the whole world, and physical assault are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is toxic masculinity.

And we don’t want violent and toxic behavior to be the choice of a leader who responds to verbal abuse, however provoking.

There is enough violence in our world as it is: verbal, physical, emotional, territorial.

As leaders, our role is to demonstrate self-restraint even in the face of blatant provocation.

Because the thing is that true leaders, those people with enough self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy and authority do not vent or attack others.

Will Smith didn’t demonstrate self-restraint and self-control.

Ask yourself: do you?

Be honest. Do you respond with self-restraint and self-control in those moments when somebody tries your patience? When somebody crosses your boundaries, or triggers your hot buttons?

If not, how do you respond?

Is there a behavioral pattern?

You can only disrupt it when you know about it, that’s why self-awareness is a bedrock of emotional intelligence and self-regulation.

If you need help in uncovering your pressure-response patterns, working with a coach can do wonders. But just observing yourself and self-reflecting can also make a difference and help you to always behave with class and dignity.