Creative Leadership

What Oprah Does Right

Whether you like Oprah or not, there’s an interesting lesson to be learned in her recent troubles with her private girls school in South Africa. Just in case you’ve been on another planet, some time ago, Oprah commissioned, founded, sponsored, and built a private girls boarding school in South Africa. It opened with plenty of Oprah-esque fanfare, lots of news coverage, and the typically emotional and visionary mission statements associated with such a venture.

Immediately, some of the parents complained because Oprah wanted to limited outside contact for the girls – including family. Her plan was sound. The fewer outside influences during the school year the better. But of course, sensing a good news story, people complained – loudly.

Next, they discovered one of the staff members was allegedly abusing the girls. Worse, I understand it was one of the American staff brought in by Oprah’s team. Bad news no matter how you look at it. It was easy to frame the story as the rich folks coming in to create a school where inside the walls abuse could happen.

But watching these events unfold was informative, and a great lesson for leaders of non-profits and religious organizations. Here’s a few thoughts:

1. If you live by the sword of the media, you die by it. In other words, if you choose to take you story to a national or international stage when things are good, then expect the media to come after you when times are bad. You’re making a deal with the devil, so plan on the blowback. If you want national coverage for the good stuff, then expect national coverage for the bad stuff.

2. Oprah didn’t hide or sweep anything under a rug. She went right to the press and told her story, and didn’t flinch. She was available for interviews, and wasn’t afraid to confront the issues in a public forum.

3. She made changes. Too many leaders ask for time to make sure the facts are in and the accusations are correct. Sounds good, but it can be a big mistake. In a media-driven culture, news travels fast, and to restore the public’s trust, move the problem out of the way – even before the case has gone to court or all the evidence is in. Yes, it might tarnish the reputation of an innocent person on your staff, but it also helps later if they are cleared, and can come back triumphant. And if you find they are guilty, you will be praised for taking action quickly.

4. Immediately create safeguards for the future. Create an immediate plan so this never happens again, and let the public know. Restoring trust is critical, and donors, customers, or supporters of any kind, need to know you can be trusted, and are ready to move forward with their best interest in mind.

Oprah’s been through a lot in the last year, but she’s responded in ways that could teach us all about how to lead during a crisis.

Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons


  1. Phil, thank you so much for always helping us to see the big picture through your blog.  I would like to, humbly, add one more thing that I feel Oprah does right – she seeks out and surrounds herself with people who have expertise in various fields that she does not have – thereby finding wisdom in a multitude of counselors.  Sure, she depends on those closest to her for advice as we all do, but she also accepts that there are lels of advice that need to be factored in.

    Too often in the body of Christ it seems that leaders surround themselves with rubber-stampers of their own opinions, as well as putting family and friends in positions they are not qualified for or have experience in.  Often, the very expertise needed is seated in their congregations, but they seem to fear letting the church body know that they are not the repository of all knowledge.  So much is lost when we operate in such a vaccum.

    I will frame and keep before me your four points in my own work, even as I keep my "eyes on the prize".    


  2. Phil, thanks for bringing out these four points to remember about dealing with our public ventures – when times are good and bad. I have tremendous admiration for Oprah because she saw a need for these girls in South Africa and did something. And even while others critique what has happened… she still chooses to DO something. Like “Eyes on the Prize” I will refer back to your four points often. And “EOTP” thanks for the ‘5th’ point.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

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