Three Leadership Lessons from the Spotlight Team


You already know parts of the story of the movie Spotlight. It’s also a story how the reporters got the story with important observations about leadership, teams, and the limits of what we can know. In the telling, perspective, attention, and reflection move center stage as the failures of the team stare back at them on the threshold of their greatest success.

Fresh perspective can change everything

The scene that transformed Spotlight from a newspaper muckraking story into a leadership story takes place just before the Boston Globe publishes the extend of priest sexual abuse and its cover-up that continues to reverberate in Boston.

The team sits in the office of editor Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber) and the Spotlight Editor Robbie Robinson (Michael Keaton) wonders why they didn’t pick up on the story earlier. Now, they know the extent of the abuse. They’ve talked to dozens of victimes. They’ve uncovered overlooked clues that are five years old. And Robinson realizes that he hadn’t followed up on stories that could have uncovered much more when he was the Metro section editor. If they’d found the story then, they’d have prevented dozens or even hundreds of cases of abuse.

Attention changes data into meaningful information

It would be easy to blame the reporters for this failure. The remorse they felt is real and justified. But they faced a moment when, through no malice or intent, they did not see what they could see in that moment.

Maybe it was a failure of attention. Maybe they were focused too narrowly on daily deadlines, or on their own careers. That happens to the best of us. Maybe it was the strength of the prevailing Boston Catholic culture that made it difficult to consider priest sexual abuse as anything but exceptional. No single cause made it impossible for editors to recognize the story. It may be fairer to say that together they could see what none of them could see by themselves.

This is the terrible truth of living in a complex and sometimes corrupt world. As leaders, we cannot do what is needed sooner than now. If we could have, we would have. Consistently doing the right thing at the right time is a nice  idea, but an unrealistic goal. Instead, we can aim to act without hurry and without delay. To do that well, we need to pay attention where attention is needed.

Reflection can produce resolution to improve, but…

But aiming to prevent past missteps creates a new bias. It holds us hostage. By narrowing our sense of the present to be sure we prevent that from happening again, the past becomes a new blind spot.

In the same scene, the team argues, accuses, and absolves themselves until the editor steps in. He turns their attention to the future. “If you need to, take a moment for yourselves. You’ve earned it,” he says. “But on Monday, I need you here fresh and ready to work.” The past isn’t irrelevant, but it is past.

You can use their story

If you want to take a leadership page from the incredible impact of a team like the one in the story, and from its blindspots, you might reflect on these questions:

 What signals have I been screening out because I’m so damn busy?

What else is going on around here – in my company, community, industry, global market?

 How am I framing my view of the situation I’m in and we’re in?

Where is my view narrow and does that serve a larger purpose now?

 Where have I been listening to the distress in my organization?

Where have I noticed weak signals but treated them as noise?

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