- David Marquet, a top graduate of the US Naval Academy, commanded the nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine USS Santa Fe from 1999 to 2001.
- Since retiring from the Navy, he has worked with businesses nationwide as a leadership consultant and gives presentations around the world about his acclaimed first book, “Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Leaders Into Followers.”
- The following is an excerpt from his new book, “Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say – and What You Don’t.”
- In it, he says that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty expected their jobs as presenters to be “redwork” – the work of doing, not thinking – instead of “bluework,” the work of thinking.
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On February 26, 2017, as the Oscars drew to a close, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty prepared to present the final and most prestigious award of the night. This was what viewers had been waiting for: the Academy Award for Best Picture. So far, everything was going according to plan.
The two PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) partners stood on either side of the stage, ready to hand the envelopes to the presenters. Each partner had a complete set of envelopes, so there was an envelope available whether a presenter emerged from stage left or stage right. As the evening went on, the envelopes were handed to the presenters, and the off-side envelopes were set aside, keeping everything in sync.
One small aesthetic change had been made this year. The envelopes were redesigned, now deep red with dark gold lettering on the front to identify the award category. The new design made it harder to read the category than in the past. Inside, a card listed the award winner and, in small letters at the bottom, the award category.
After Emma Stone accepted the award for best actress in a leading role for “La La Land,” she just happened to exit stage right, passing the PwC partner just as he was handing the envelope to Dunaway and Beatty, right before they walked onstage.
Unfortunately, the PwC partner had not set aside the spare envelope for best actress in a leading role. He gave Beatty the duplicate, instead of the envelope marked best picture.
They had the wrong envelope, but there was still an opportunity to avoid announcing the wrong winner.
Beatty opened the envelope, pulled out the card, and looked down at it. The print read: Emma Stone, “La La Land.” It was the card for best actress. He paused, did a double take. His face contorted, he looked in the envelope for a second card.
In small letters at the bottom, the award category for that card was correctly identified: actress in a leading role. But reading that would have required another pause and the clock was ticking.
After another moment’s hesitation, he started into his script, “And the winner of the best picture … “
Again, though, he paused, face tightened and brow furrowed. He looked in the envelope. Hesitancy, double-checking, stalling.
Dunaway was exasperated by the delay. She’d had enough. She pursed her lips, looked at him disapprovingly, and then placed her hand on his arm and said, “You’re impossible!”
Beatty looked past Dunaway, offstage, for help, or a sign, or something. Nothing came. He was on his own. Dunaway prodded him again with, “C’mon.”
He then showed her the card and she immediately called out, “La La Land.”
She had just announced the wrong movie.
Who’s to blame?
Why didn’t Beatty stop the proceedings when he saw something unexpected on the card? What made it so hard to simply hold up his hand and say, “Something doesn’t look right here”?
Beatty was trapped in “redwork” (the work of doing, not thinking) and could not get out. He (along with the rest of the Oscar producers) was running the Industrial Age play of obeying the clock. What they needed to do was a control-the-clock play, but this wasn’t in their playbook.
Here’s what I think happened:
Beatty and Dunaway have been primed to think of their jobs as redwork, following a sequence of steps: dress nicely, walk onstage, open the envelope, read the card. There is no expectation of thinking or decision-making. They do not expect “bluework” – deciding whether they should read the card – to be part of their job.
And why would they doubt the system? The card was delivered by the PwC partner, a trusted source, and in the 50 years since “Bonnie and Clyde” hit the silver screen, there has never been an incorrect card handed to a presenter.
But then Beatty opens the envelope and sees something unexpected: the name of an actress on the “Best Picture” card. He questions whether it is the right card. A thoughtful decision is needed.
This is bluework (the work of thinking) and he needs his prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain best able to help him in problem solving. But his prefrontal cortex is impaired by stressors.
Stress pushes us all back to the oldest part of our brain, that original reptile brain at the top of our spines. That reptile brain is interested in one thing: self-preservation (not the preservation of the Oscars, not the preservation of the teams that worked on “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” and not the preservation of Dunaway).
His reptile brain is worried. It reasons, “If I stop the Oscars and it turns out that the card is right, I will be embarrassed for being wrong.”
Why wrong? Almost every person who goes through this analysis with me uses that word – they will say, “He’s afraid of being wrong.” This is one of the barriers to speaking up: labelling as “wrong” a pause which is simply asking for a check that turns out to be unnecessary. To call it resilience, verification, or a questioning attitude would be a better label.
Or, he could go on with the show. To the reptile brain, this seems like the safer option. The card has never been wrong and it came from an authoritative source. It’s not your job, anyway, to question the card. After all, you are supposed to pass it to Dunaway, and she’ll read it. This thought process happens in the blink of an eye. The reptile brain sides with self-preservation.
After that first glimpse at the card, once that decision is made, the stress leaves Beatty’s face and his prefrontal cortex comes back to life. The human brain now evaluates the decision the reptile brain has already made. In essence, it says, “Hey, reptile brain, good job. Too scary to stop the Oscars. Besides, it’s not your job to question the card.”
But the deliberation is not quite closed yet. The possibility the card is wrong weighs heavily on Beatty. He pauses again, still trying to figure out how to stop the show, but he does not have the right play. There are two final chances to trap the error. First, when he looks offstage. The show managers offstage can’t see the information on the card, only Beatty can. And Beatty, who can see the information, does not feel he has the authority to stop the Oscars. That decision rests with the show managers. He is trying to close that gap, hoping they will pick up on his distress signals. They do not.
Finally, there is the chance that Dunaway will notice the problem. Then, maybe they can collaborate on what to do. He shows her the card, but she has misread his delay. She immediately announces, “La La Land.”
What he needed was a pause, a moment to read the small writing at the bottom of the card, or an opportunity to have someone else, perhaps Dunaway, look at the card, too, in a deliberate way. That pause would have given him the opportunity to pivot from “We need to read this card correctly” to “Do we have the correct card?” Instead of being locked into the redwork of task completion, he would have shifted to the bluework of deciding whether they should read the card or not.
Remember the division of labour in the Industrial Age: A few do the bluework and most do the redwork. It isn’t the redwork that gets us in trouble. Instead, it is the division of labour, which creates redworkers who are expected to perform only redwork. This labour strategy is fragile because performing the task sequence of passing the card and reading the card with more expertise would not have prevented the mistake. Only a pause to reevaluate whether they should read the card would have prevented the error from propagating. Redwork is brittle. The bluework allows us to adapt. But unless we control the clock, we have no chance to do our bluework.
So, the question is not “Who’s to blame?” but “What’s to blame?”
And the answer is programming to follow the Industrial Age play of obeying the clock.
Excerpted from “Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say – and What You Don’t” by L. David Marquet with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © L. David Marquet, 2020.
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