Hollywood awards seasons come and go and, for the most part, even the lifetime achievement gongs – regardless of how cherished their recipients are – soon become footnotes in history.
But at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony on 7 January, lifetime achievement award-winner Oprah Winfrey made history.
In a powerful speech that focused on the plight of women who have been abused in male-dominated environments, Winfrey summed up, crystallised and amplified the message of the ‘#MeToo’ movement that has swept through the film industry and branched out into other parts of the working world.
Striking a universal note, Winfrey said: “In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do – whether on television or through film – is to say something about how men and women really behave; to say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere… and how we overcome.”
What made Winfrey’s speech truly remarkable, though, was that in capturing the spirit of the moment – and implicitly rebutting the values that are widely perceived to drive the current White House – it was instantly seized upon as the opening salvo of a Presidential bid.
The reaction to Winfrey’s speech demonstrates the sheer extent to which she has transcended her role as media mogul and entrenched herself at the heart of cultural life: a rare feat. Indeed, among modern corporate big hitters, it is arguably only Steve Jobs who has managed to attain a similar level of public affection - as demonstrated by the makeshift shrines that consumers made in his honour outside Apple stores around the world when he died in 2011.
What combination of qualities and measures has Winfrey deployed that has enabled her to escape the stratosphere of business, and become a cultural lens through which people try to make sense of their lives?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There are some fascinating contrasts between Winfrey’s route into public affection and that of Steve Jobs. The interesting thing about Winfrey is that she was a celebrity before she was an entrepreneur, and leveraged her celebrity in order to make inroads into business. The US doesn’t quite have ‘national treasures’ in the way that we do in the UK, but Oprah achieved something very close to that through being there on her couch on a daily basis, sharing her thoughts with the viewing public for so long.
“Central to that stage of Oprah’s career was her decision to use her own trials and lived experience as prisms for other people’s predicaments, which translated as a natural flair for identifying and empathising with her viewers. As a result, members of her audience felt as though she was addressing them personally – especially if they were up against similar challenges. So people warmed to her.”
Cooper adds: “While Oprah arguably wouldn’t have been a businesswoman without being a celebrity first, Steve Jobs would most likely never have attained celebrity status without being a businessman first. His route into public affection was defined by how he kept the faith through setbacks and failures and managed to optimise his best ideas. That tenacity enabled him to find innovative ways of selling new products to existing customers, and the same products to new customers, constantly building his corporate and personal brands.
“So if this pair hold any lessons for leaders, then they are different lessons: that ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world from their perspective is Oprah’s outstanding gift. For Steve Jobs, it’s self-belief, a dogged dedication to honing products that improve consumers’ lives, and resilience in the face of either potholes in the road to success, or opposition from champions of the status quo.”
For further thoughts on inspirational leadership, check out these learning resources from the Institute. And for insights into resilience, click here
Image of Oprah Winfrey at the 75th Golden Globes on 7 January 2017 courtesy of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association