Will Smith won the best actor Oscar last night for his role as Richard Williams (father to Venus and Serena) in King Richard. He was only the fifth Black man in history to win that award. But the evening's most memorable moment came a few minutes earlier. It also involved Smith, and not in a good way.
Comedian Chris Rock had just made a joke onstage about Jada Pinkett Smith and "GI Jane 2"--an obvious reference to her buzz cut-length hair. Pinkett Smith has alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that can cause hair loss. A furious Will Smith got up from his seat, strode onto the stage, and slapped Rock hard in the face. "Keep my wife's name out your [expletive] mouth!" Smith shouted. Twice.
Then he won the Oscar, and a very emotional Smith used the opportunity to explain himself and apologize. The entire event is something that everyone, and especially every leader, can learn from.
1. Sooner or later, something will push your buttons.
This will happen even if you're a master at managing your emotions, even if you're accustomed to ignoring detractors, and even if you know better than to lose your cool, as Smith obviously does. No matter how collected, mature, and professional you are most of the time, we all also have triggers that can set off emotions too powerful to control. For Smith, what felt like an attack on his wife when she was vulnerable was clearly one of those triggers.
2. When it happens, be transparent.
It's important to publicly acknowledge that you lost your cool, and if you can, say why you did. "I know to do what we do, you've got to be able to take abuse, you've got to be able to have people talk crazy about you," Smith said in his acceptance speech. "In this business, you've got to be able to have people disrespecting you, and you've got to smile and pretend like that's OK."
But he stressed how he felt privileged to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who played Oracene Price, (Richard Williams's wife), and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who played Venus and Serena. He didn't mention his own family members but the connection was clear. He could brush off barbs aimed at him, but not at the people he cared about.
3. Apologize--but don't say anything you don't mean.
"I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees," Smith said toward the end of his speech. But that was it. He did not apologize to Rock, a very conspicuous omission.
We have no way of knowing, but I'm willing to bet that Smith didn't apologize to Rock because that apology would have been insincere. What made Smith's acceptance speech truly memorable is that it was so full of emotion and he clearly meant every word of it. There's a lot of power in that kind of honesty. You can use it to rebuild relationships if you've acted in anger.
4. Keep the focus on what really matters.
The entire Dolby Theatre was buzzing about his altercation with Rock. But first, last, and throughout his speech, Smith focused on King Richard, its cast and crew members, and on the movie's real-life subjects. "I want to say thank you to Venus and Serena and the entire Williams family for entrusting me with your story," he said. "I want to be an ambassador for that kind of love and care and concern."
"Art imitates life," he added. "I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things."
There's a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we wind up in a conversation. (Interested in joining? Here's here's more detailed information, and an invitation to an extended free trial.) They tell me that any apparent threat to their family members or loved can set off an inappropriate reaction, just as it did for Smith. Those are some of their biggest triggers. What are yours?