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Leaders Don’t Villainize

The Evil Queen. Malificient. Ursula. Cruella de Vil.

I’ve always found it a bit ironic that the most interesting Disney female roles are often the villains. These strong characters steal the show with bold personalities, costumes, and voices especially in the real life or stage productions. Kicka$$ actresses (Angelina Jolie, Glenn Close, Melissa McCarthy) have harkened to these villains bringing them depth and character. Even my kids have raced to engage with them at Disney World. These villains no doubt capture intrigue as they play strong roles in the overall triumph of good.

Even my kids are attracted to the villains

I started thinking about these fictitious villains when prompted by a colleague recently to bring an edgier, contrarian voice to my writing and better call out a villain in my narratives. Given that I write about strategy and leadership from the vantage point of personal and pragmatic experience, who is the villain I fight in my professional life?

Let’s take stock:

🚫 I haven’t been locked in a tower.

🚫 My voice box hasn’t been taken by an octopus.

🚫 My beloved furry companions haven’t been sheared.

Or… have I experienced all of this and more?

Identifying My Villains

As I reflect on the plot of my career journey, I recall the highs - feeling valued, having impact, lifting up others. Those moments are as beautiful as a pair of glass slippers just my size. I also remember the scary plot twists and climatic moments when danger loomed - villains trying to suppress me to stay in a narrow silo or business tower, mute me, and the worst - belittle beloved staff, shearing their confidence.

The more I examined the characters in my stories, I realized that my ‘villains’ take many shapes - all of which I have fought to overcome.

✔️ Meek decision-makers

✔️ Unidimensional thinkers

✔️ Territorial non-collaborators

✔️ Implacable rock-throwers

✔️ Placaters

✔️ Check-the-boxer

Perhaps most telling about my villains - whether individuals or organizations - is that they are all facets of a weak leader, which is perhaps my mega-villain.

Extracting Villain Value

Examine any one of these personas and you can surely harken to the time when it drove you crazy. Let's face it, I can name people that have been my villains much like pundits name companies they view as villains of industry. I also think we all play the part of someone else's villain at times in our careers. Yet we need to realize that villains often play a key role in organizational and market growth. Take for example the implacable rock-thrower. This contrarian may be the bane of any meeting - criticizing constantly - but also can help push innovation or transformation. The placater helps resolve disputes. Check-the-boxers ensure things get done. Unidimensional thinkers are often functional experts. In Disney terms, it’s Ursula’s value in how she reminds Ariel that “a woman doesn’t know how powerful her voice is until she has been silenced.”

Leadership requires extracting the value of all villains. In professional terms, the leading role (aka: CEO or industry sector topseed) needs to guide, influence, and direct the concepts, behaviors, systems, and investments across an array of stakeholders. This creates an interesting plot twist for those who are or aspire to be in executive positions especially of segment domination. A ‘weak leader’ (my arch nemesis) I realize could just be unsuccessfully trying to balance multiple villains.

A strong leader though doesn’t balance or let the villains overpower the scenes. This point became clearer to me in a recent Punks & Pinstripes discussion with Stephen “Shed” Shedletzky in response to a question I posed on the relationship between a company’s leader and its ‘punk’ - or driver of transformation or change. As he describes in his book Speak-Up Culture, the stronger a leader listens, the more inclined people - even an organization’s villains and punks - are to speak, act, and grow the company.

Leading the Plot

I’m grateful that the villains in my career story have been generally few and far between. Without them, however, my plot would have had no excitement and I surely would not have grown by learning to overcome and manage them. Similarly, when I think about the behemoths of industry so often villainized for their market domination, I remember that because of where they invest and how they spur detractors, competition begets innovation. By recognizing and naming my villains, I am better prepared to be my own heroine and a stronger leader - recognizing that I need them to play a part, but never should they be the star.

I’m sure the advice given to me to “be edgier, contrarian, and rally against a villain” was never intended to lead to Disney references. It did, however, inspire me to remember that leadership is not about playing a single role. While the roles and voices of the Disney Villains are still some of my favorite characters, in real life, the voices need to be tapered to only the positive impact they can have to push a plot forward. That is what makes for a strong protagonist, growth focused executive, and strategically minded maven.

I encourage you to ask yourself: What villains detract from or risk your leadership or organizational success? What do they teach you about your voice and the role you play? How can you put them in their place and increase the potential for more fairy tale endings?

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