The key to any good story is a great villain. Darth Vader. Longshanks from Braveheart. Heath Ledger’s Joker. Kevin Spacey in SE7EN.
The key to any good story is a great villain. Darth Vader. Longshanks from Braveheart. Heath Ledger’s Joker. Kevin Spacey in SE7EN. Let’s face it: there are just some people that we love to hate. Personally, I want my villains smart and cunning. I want a villain who can actually defeat the hero. I want to believe that it’s possible the hero might actually fail. I want The Matrix’s Mr. Smith.
Yes, I’m convinced that we love our villains. But more often I think we love to villainize.
Villainizing is what we do when we leave the movie theater—with its heroes and villains—and begin creating villains in our own world. The typical situation might go like this: someone cuts you off on the road and Immediately, if you’re like me, you’re questioning their IQ and their sanity. In short, they have become your villain. So maybe you honk at them. Totally justifiable, right? After all, they almost killed everyone. Have they no dignity for life?!
Then they look back at you–embarrassed. They feel bad, but maybe they don’t deal with embarrassment well. Maybe they react to the situation by trying to stick up for themselves. Maybe they were just coming back from a seminar where they’re taught to stick up for themselves because, generally, they don’t and that’s why they’re in an abusive relationship.
So in an effort to grow, they mistakenly overact by giving you the one-fingered salute out their driver’s side window. Horrified at themselves, they speed off, only to be rebuked by their abusive girlfriend a few hours later for the speeding ticket they’ll get trying to get away from you and their never-ending shame.
But that’s not what we see. We see this punk kid nearly destroy the world, then flip us off and speed away.
“The nerve of that guy! I hope he gets a speeding ticket!!”
We always want our villains to suffer. The act of villainizing is subtle. But it happens all the time. Our friends become Jokers. Our bosses become Longshanks. Those we lead become Vaders.
In leadership, I’ve found that the easiest people to villianize are those who lead us and those we lead. After all, they’re the ones who slow us down. They’re the ones who don’t understand. They’re the ones who get in our way. As if they have nothing better to do than play the villain in our little story.
The fact is, people are rarely as bad, manipulative, conniving as we think they are. Most people make really boring villains. And often times when they do make the villain list, it’s not who they want to be, and the darkness that’s in their hearts is an aching pain that they wish would go away, if only they knew how.
It doesn’t mean people can’t do horrible things. Of course people are capable of that. And, of course, we all have shadows in our hearts and ghosts in our closets that haunt us and own us in the night.
But that’s not why your boss doesn’t listen more. And that’s not why those you lead don’t always ‘get it.’ It’s not why your husband leaves the toilet seat up or why your roommate doesn’t get breathe-rights for his snoring problem. It’s not why you didn’t make the team and it’s not why she didn’t return your email.
Ninety percent of the time, it’s just not.
Which is good. Because that means people are not as bad as we think they are. But it’s also hard, because now we have less melodrama in our lives … and our souls are left wanting.
The good news is that there’s plenty of real drama in the world to satisfy our spiritual hunger. There’s the real drama—the real fight—against poverty, drugs, corruption, narcissism. The real fight to love the world into a better condition, to take real risks—not in confronting the person who just cut in front of us at the grocery store—but to get involved in our local communities to help raise the poverty wages that the people at the grocery store get paid.
And, of course, there’s the real fight against our need to villainize. There’s the very real fight to continue to orient our hearts more towards beauty, compassion and risk. Towards proactivity, understanding, life and wholeness.
Our greatest heroes embody these attributes.
And we become the villains when we oppose them.
When we villainize less, we have more energy to give to those fights that simply matter more, and the less we become the villains of our own stories. The more understanding and forgiving we become the more we open ourselves up to the healing reality that the world is not conspiring against us, even though it sometimes feels that way.
I once heard Andy Stanley say, “When we turn on our followers we have abdicated our right to lead.”
Put another way: those we lead are never the villains. Even Jesus still chose Judas. Even Peter got second (and third) chances.
I wonder how much energy is wasted in our leadership villainizing those around us rather than making an effort to see the best in others and continue to do the hard work of leadership: fighting together against things that hurt us all, rather than people who occasionally hurt us?