8 Leadership Tips from Oscar Winner Olympia Dukakis

Oscar winning actress Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck) is my mentor, teacher, and friend, and I worked as her Personal Executive Assistant for 25 years. I resigned from this dream job in 2011 to pursue another. I am now training Personal Assistants to be the best in their business as I travel the world.

Olympia taught me a great deal and as I teach others, I carry Olympia’s words and philosophies with me to help others be “the ultimate” in whatever they do. She has one of the strongest and most disciplined work ethics I have ever experienced. We half-jokingly called Olympia, “the thespian nun” as she hunkered down to make her award winning work look oh so effortless.

I felt very lucky to have a front row seat for the Oscar “machine” of 1988. As exciting and glamorous as it was, it was also an organizational challenge of the highest order. There is one main thing to know about winning an Oscar. You need to get nominated for one first and the six weeks between the nominations and the ceremony are jam-packed with endless publicity and events related to the Oscars. Envision your busiest day ever and then multiply that by 5 and give it a triple shot of espresso. That kind of busy. Plus, since actors are still human beings, they do need to eat and sleep occasionally.


Here are 8 leadership tips from Olympia’s straight-shooter playbook which helped us before, during, and long after the Oscars.

  1. Do one thing well, not two things badly. Olympia had an impossibly heavy schedule on most days of our 25 years together so we learned this lesson the hard way. We are all tempted to multitask and schedule just one more meeting in the day, but most of the time, it just isn’t worth it. Here’s the rub. No matter how famous or wealthy you are, you still only get those pesky 24 hours. An assistant flexes her/his leadership muscles by saying things like, “Let’s push that meeting to next week so you can rest up. You have a bear of a schedule in the next few days.” Assistants can see around corners and know important things that their principals don’t.
  2. Speak to the elephant in the room. What a time-waster and energy suck it is to not say the thing that everyone is thinking but no one has the guts to say because it might hurt someone’s feelings or might make a difficult project a little bit harder. Say it anyway. Speaking up is absolutely vital in work and in life, and if you are the one who says the hard thing – with compassion – you will be viewed as a trusted leader.
  3. When in doubt, ask. Still in doubt? Ask again until you are clear what is needed. Better to ask than to make what might be a very expensive and wrong decision. Attention to detail and clarification builds respect and motivates others to be clearer the next time.
  4. “No one is going to theatre jail over this.” This sentence helped us keep perspective over the inevitable mistakes that happened and their proper level of seriousness. Keep and use your sense of humor as you work past the things that go wrong because it’s not if but when they are going to happen. Then move on. Really. Let it go and move on.
  5. Everything is negotiable. Even the Department of Motor Vehicles offers VIP services through unmarked doors and not just for movie stars. Did you know that bankers make house calls? Airports will even open extra security lines upon request. The trick? Finding the right phone number and asking politely without entitlement. (www.gethuman.com)
  6. Don’t allow small disagreements to escalate info insurmountable mountains. Tolerating short-term discomfort is far better than long-term misery, distraction, and resentment. There is too much good work to do for that and too many great movies to watch.
  7. Keep yourself physically comfortable. Long days for weeks on end can take a very big toll, especially when you are traveling and needing to sleep in different time zones. Ask for quiet locations in hotels and share preferences like firmness (or lack thereof) of pillows and mattresses. Keep healthy snacks with you at all times. Use a sound machine for soothing white noise like the ocean or wind. Do you need a quick meditation? Check out: calm.com
  8. Show gratitude. Theatre is a collaborative art so Olympia knows that everyone plays a part in the success of every project. Saying thank you to everyone involved in your work is simply the right thing to do. No one wins an Oscar alone.

Bonus Tip: Communicate! After the Oscars, Olympia put the statue in the middle of my desk with a note under it – “Find a place for him.” I did.

Learning from Olympia Dukakis was one of the joys of my career. You probably won’t win an Oscar and neither will I, but we can all be winners in our workplace by taking Olympia’s lead. And…If you haven’t seen Moonstruck, it is a terrific film. For all you film buffs – enjoy the Oscars on Sunday February 28, 2016! Nominations are announced on Thursday January 14th.


About Bonnie Low-Kramen

Bonnie Low-Kramen is the CEO/Founder of Ultimate Assistant and is one of the most respected leaders in the administrative profession. The bestselling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant, she is known for her passionate commitment to being a catalyst for positive change in the global workplace and the private service industry. For 25 years, Bonnie worked as the Personal Assistant to Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis and now travels the world teaching Ultimate Assistant workshops and speaking at conferences and companies. Clients include Starbucks, Amazon, AMC Entertainment, Dell, and MasterCard. She was named 2015 Educator of the Year by DEMA, the Domestic Estate Managers Association. Bonnie co-hosts the monthly “Be the Ultimate Assistant Podcast” with Vickie Sokol Evans available on iTunes. She is a columnist for Executive Secretary Magazine and SmartCEO Magazine, and is a contributing writer to many other international publications. With trademark honesty and humor, she pulls the curtain back so that we can all lean in and excel at the very highest levels. For more information: www.bonnielowkramen.com

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