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Lessons from Bradley Cooper in empowering people

Bradley Cooper knows he's a star and the man responsible for the latest "A Star Is Born." But he also knows the spotlight belongs to many.

5 min read


Bradley Cooper

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I saw “A Star Is Born” on opening weekend and, despite my outlandish expectations, it was one of the best movie experiences I’ve had in years. But that doesn’t mean I planned to write about it.

However, reading and watching the discussion around the film has revealed to me surprising details that matter for leaders and managers. Bradley Cooper, as director and standard-bearer for this film, has done two things besides make a well-received movie. He has 1) consistently given public credit to others, and 2) demonstrated that he understands that creating a vision for a team means leaving room for those people to shine.

Giving credit

Cooper’s not being glib or thoughtless in his praise of others, at least not that I’ve seen. He doesn’t give credit when it’s not warranted — say, denying his role in the directing, acting or storytelling. He doesn’t embellish the accomplishments of whomever he’s praising, either.

Rather, when an aspect of the film is mentioned that was accomplished by someone else, Cooper gives specific credit to that person. This sounds insignificant, and maybe it should be, but such actions stand out in our society.

This isn’t entirely new. He went on “Ellen” over a year ago to talk about the movie while it was being made, and almost immediately, he answers Ellen DeGeneres’ “You’ve written, you’re directing, you’re starring in ‘A Star Is Born’” by noting that he has two co-writers on the film.

He then goes on to talk about how audiences will get to witness Lady Gaga’s talent, as well as how he’s learned how difficult singing is when you need to do it on camera. These are small things, but when people are asked to talk about yourself publicly, they tend to only talk about themselves.

More recently, I saw Cooper deflecting Jimmy Fallon’s praise for having the No. 1 song on iTunes (“Shallow”) by noting the songwriters. This could just be the type of name-checking that you see at awards shows (“I’d like to thank my agent …”), but I’m not so sure. After all, most folks don’t know or care who Mark Ronson is, nor do they care that Cooper only sang on the song and didn’t compose it.

If you accomplish something, stand up for it. Enjoy the praise! But it’s so easy to start taking credit for things you didn’t do or start to think that you didn’t have help along the way.

Vision requires a collective

Perhaps more surprising to me is to hear the stories of “A Star Is Born” actors talking about how Cooper’s generosity as a screenwriter and a director.

After all, he spent years thinking about this movie, securing the rights and funding, writing the script and songs, preparing to act and direct, soliciting cast members, ensuring the film slyly mentioned every predecessor. Cooper even spent months changing his voice to win over Sam Elliott.

He potentially put his career on the line to remake a film that had last been attempted, rather inauspiciously, more than 40 years earlier. One might think he’s be a micromanager. And perhaps he was with certain things.

But then you see Shangela of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” talk about getting to improv the drag bar scenes. Cooper’s real-life ear doctor, who has an early scene, says he was told to improv because “[y]ou know this stuff much better than whatever we wrote into the script.” If that’s not enough, there’s the interview with the woman who plays his assistant — she told Vulture how Cooper encouraged her and other actors to build on the scripted dialogue.

This direction Cooper provided wasn’t just about freedom but also about a safe environment. Dave Chappelle has acted in many films, and he had one of the most famous and renowned comedy shows ever made. But “A Star is Born” was different for him:

“The way he directed me and the way we would talk about the scene, and the way he would create an environment that gave me the courage to actually be vulnerable in a way that comedy would never let me be. I never felt threatened or unsafe.”

Even Cooper felt free to disregard his own script at times. His vision appears to have been bigger than just the script.

“The one thing that I begged of everybody in the room here is to trust me,” Cooper said. “Even if the movie sucked … they were going to be authentic no matter what.”

Note that none of the characters mentioned above are, technically, essential to the movie. But they were essential to Cooper’s vision, and he told them so in his words and actions. When you have essential people, you want them to deliver their best. And so you guide them, but you also don’t get in their way.

Where are you taking credit when you shouldn’t? Where can you take a moment to spotlight someone who is deserving but underappreciated?

If you have authority and power, how can you deploy it to showcase the deserving people around you?

James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other fields. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.