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From movie star to advocacy: the leadership of George Clooney

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You might be more accustomed to seeing George Clooney’s name in the pages of a glossy tabloid than in the transcript of a meeting with US President Barack Obama, but for those who know of Clooney’s advocacy work, it may not come as such a surprise.

George Clooney, Hollywood star, Academy Award winner, and founder of not-for-profit organisation Not On Our Watch, shared his experiences and what it means to be a leader at Growth Faculty’s Global Leadership Forum in December.

Keeping war criminals in check

Founded by George Clooney, alongside Brad Pitt and Matt Damon and others, Not On Our Watch uses satellites to monitor the movements of war criminals, particularly in the north and south of Sudan.

“We’re doing things that governments can’t do because that would be called spying and the UN can’t do because of the same reason,” said Clooney ““[We are] independent individuals… with a 400-mile long lens, keeping an eye on [the country] in real time.

“These guys like Omar al-Bashir (president of North Sudan), who has been charged with crimes against humanity by The Hague… it seemed to me as if they should be afforded the same amount of celebrity as I am,” said Clooney of the project’s inception. “We’ve had Bashir write letters to the newspapers saying it’s unfair. You know me, can’t please all the war criminals all the time.”

But it’s more than involvement behind a lens. Clooney has been on the ground in regions of the Middle East with human rights activist John Prendergast.

“We had an understanding that the only way that you could really bring attention to the issues at hand is if you were in places that are dangerous,” he explained. “You go in understanding that this is going to be hard and it is.”

Clooney’s involvement is no publicity stunt.

“Everybody has a gun, literally. They don’t have food but they all have Kalashnikovs.”

Speaking on celebrity advocacy, Clooney said he’s not skeptical of the intentions of those who get involved.

“When Sean Penn spends a year in Haiti, that’s a year of your life you spend in Haiti. And when you see Matt Damon concerned with water issues in Africa and in developing countries, they’re on the ground and they are there all the time. They don’t need to be more famous.

“They’re actually looking to take this incredibly hot spotlight that tends to land on a certain group of people and try to diffuse it onto the people that can’t get any of that light shining on then. I find it to be exciting to watch people do that and make the commitment. They don’t have to.”

During his advocacy work, he has come against many skeptics and critics. The solution, though, is to stay informed.

“[Everyone] will face critics in their lives that try to find some way to disenfranchise what it is you want to do, what it is you believe in, whatever it is, and the best way to beat them is to know more about the subject matter than they do,” he said. “You have to stay involved just because otherwise you are actually uninformed.”

The project so far has been a success. In fact, in December last year, the International Criminal Court used Not On Our Watch’s pictures as evidence to charge the Sudanese defense minister with war crimes against humanity.

“If we can slow it down in any way at all, if we make it hard for them to move troops back and forth because they’re afraid that China will call them and say ‘Guys, I can turn on the internet right now and see that there are helicopters there when you’re saying it’s rebel groups” then we’re successful,” he said

Clooney has even had meetings with Barack Obama, in which the US President agreed to extend support for the cause – but not without a little push.

“We needed a bigger name envoy directed from the White House to correspond directly with northern Sudan,” he said, to which Obama gave his response that he would help in the future.

“I said to him ‘OK Mr President, I understand that but here’s the thing. I’m going to walk out now and there’s Larry King Live and 15 other cameras there and they’re going to ask me what we got out of this…  what should I say to them that doesn’t sound like you’re sliding on the issue?’

“I am manipulating, as any person would manipulate in certain situations, to try to do what I best can in the most polite possible way which is to say I want to support what you’ve always believed and said you believed,” he said. “My job was to go in and sort of remind him.”

Clearly, Clooney has the political maneuvers down pat, but don’t expect him to enter the field.

“I find that advocacy works and is much more interesting to work on because I can pick a subject and focus on it and stay on it and I don’t have to compromise.”

The movie industry

From the deserts of Sudan to a role behind the camera, Clooney has also recently released The Ides of March, a movie which he directed and starred in.

“I work in an industry where it’s very hard to get certain types of filming and we made this film for $12.5 million,” he said. “The average Hollywood film is $90-100 million, so in order to get those kinds of films made – which are never going to have a huge return on their investment because it appeals to a very different audience – it requires picking it up and carrying it over the line.”

But Clooney hasn’t always had the luxury to pick the projects he worked on. In his early days, Clooney did his time working in bit parts and scrapped television shows before his big break on ER in 1994. The show went on to capture an average of 40 million viewers a week.

“Luck is a big part of it. For an actor, luck, it’s about 95 per cent of the game,” he said. “It is the brass ring when you get to make a living and luck is a huge part of it. Many of the best actors I’ve ever worked with in acting class and in theatre never made it.

“You can create some of this luck,” he said. “There’s a version of luck where you’re actually prepared and around and involved but you do still need the break.”

And how do you turn that luck into something more?

“The first thing you have to do is identify where you are and who you are,” he said. “I had been a failure for such a long period of time that being a success was something I understood as it being a moment… You were only going to have that first year of being the new kid on the block, being the discovered one.”

Between working 12-hour days and six-day weeks for nine months of the year, Clooney spent his vacation time working. He went on to star in several movies, including Batman & Robin. And though this movie was deemed a critical failure, Clooney learnt some of his most important lessons here.

“At that point, Arnold [Schwarzenegger] (a co-star in the film) was being paid $25 million to be in that movie and they were paying me literally nothing compared to that. And I took all the shit for it,” he said.

“It teaches you that you’re going to take a lot of shit. Do you know what it teaches you? It teaches you if you’re going to be in the position to help get a movie made, then you have to be responsible for the movies themselves, not just your part. You are now a part of the filmmaking process, not just part of performing in a film.”

Leadership from Sudan to Hollywood

Whether in Sudan or Hollywood, Clooney has found his role as leader an important part of sharing his vision and getting results.

Human rights and advocacy, he said, “is all about participation”.

“It’s going to come down to diplomacy – robust diplomacy – and the only thing that pushes robust diplomacy is individuals,” he said. “Every single one of your voices can matter and does matter and the minute you don’t think it does, everything’s lost, elections don’t matter, nothing matters. The individual’s voice must be and still has to be the most important part.”

When it comes to directing, though, it’s a completely different leadership role.

“Directing is a dictatorship because a director is still the guy who says do this, do this, do this,” he said.

However, collaboration also plays a very important role, so long as the leader is strong in their vision.

“If you act in the film, you’re one of the paints, as is the composer, or the editor,” he said. “[Very much like being a CEO], the director of the film, he gets to put them all together but he can’t do all those.

“It’s giving away a certain amount of power and trusting people.”

Calling upon a piece of advice from late director Sidney Lumet, Clooney explained a leader needs to get charges to be on their game and give their best.

“One of the great tricks is on the first day of shooting on the set, set up a shot you’ll never ever use in the film, and have all the actors in it and just go ‘Ok, action’ and then the minute it’s over go ‘Cut, print, good, moving on’,” he said. “What’s interesting is it puts everybody on their toes and makes them work.

“You have to let them walk away feeling like they’re ok,” he added. “Part of it is about instilling confidence in people by first of all hiring the right people and then by letting them do what they do best which is why you hired them in the first place.”

We live in a time where leadership is lacking at times, laments Clooney.

“We find that in politics. I think we are all experiencing that in one way or another. We certainly have it in the House and Senate. We can’t get anything done.”

But in order to get results, the leader has to step up and control the situation.

“If you come upon a car accident and there are people who are injured and there’s [also] a bunch of people, you’ll find they just stand around but if you say ‘You do this, you do this’, they’ll all do it. The trick is someone has to tell them what to do and they’ll do it. There’s an element of people who have that personality who come in and say ‘I’ll take care of this for you’.”

Published on: Wednesday, February 22, 2012

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