A warning to all great leaders. Beware becoming the villain you fear.

Leadership is something we can all practice every day.  We can lead ourselves from within, embracing vulnerability with ourselves and others, being truthful in our interactions, or taking accountability for our actions.

When we demonstrate leadership practices consistently, maybe we’re given the privilege of leading others. Formally or informally.  Once we move to formal leadership, suddenly our behaviors and practices become part of our job with (hopefully) clear expectations.

There are so many books and frameworks out there about leadership.  What it is and what it isn’t.  Yet there’s no one definitive guide.  Companies have job descriptions and role expectations they publish, but leadership is rarely found in a list of discrete actions.

Instead, each individual has to practice leadership the best they know how.  Modeling good examples, learning from mistakes, and embracing a growth mindset are great ways to move from newbie to experienced, and maybe even great leadership.

Yet even great leaders must be wary.  At no point is the journey done.  We can never learn so much that we’re done growing.  Be so good that we can’t make mistakes.

Instead, great leaders must know that they can be great AND a villain simultaneously.

Our part in others’ stories

No matter how pure our intentions and how well we show up in the world, someone is going to see us as a villain.  It is inevitable.  It wouldn’t be surprising if someone found Mother Theresa questionable in some way.

That’s the nature of humanity.  We are perfectly flawed humans, leading other perfectly flawed humans.  Our best can never meet everyone’s expectations.  We can control the way we present to the world, but not the way we are received.

Yet even great leaders have gone down bad paths.  Formerly beloved and suddenly unrecognizable.  The perception of villain rising unchecked.

How could this be possible?  Aren’t there clear heroes and villains in every story?  Not even remotely.  We all have within us light and dark.  Some may choose to see more of the darkness, but sometimes we can make it difficult to see the light.

Old narratives and current truths

Consistently great leaders possess two attributes: humility and a growth mindset.  They may have other characteristics in common, but those two are a must.

Humility is the reminder that we are not perfect.  That the good intentions of yesterday do not guarantee positive outcomes today.  Great leaders must recommit to leadership every day and not rest on prior feedback.  If we get caught up reading our own press, our thoughts may be in the past version of us, while our actions are creating a new narrative.

A growth mindset keeps us looking forward.  The world is changing.  What we know about human nature, the brain, or even how we interact as a result of COVID…all evolving.  There is always more we can learn about ourselves and those in our care.  When we shut ourselves off from growth, we can no longer evolve to the needs of those around us.

While humility and a growth mindset are needed to keep us open to change, there will be struggles we face on our journey.  Temptations to feed the dark and the villain persona.

There are three trials leaders will face as they progress in their roles.  Challenges to either consciously stay rooted in leadership, or allow the villain to emerge.

1.    Small compromises

Every leadership journey begins with small tests.  We are asked to do something by our senior leaders that doesn’t sit right in our gut.  It feels like a compromise to our personal integrity, but it’s not illegal or unethical.  It just doesn’t feel right.

Every time one of those small moments happen, we can choose which direction to go.  When we focus on keeping our senior leaders happy over what we think is right, we are prioritizing power and position over our leadership.

No one tends to start out with the intention of doing bad things.  As we ignore our gut on the small things, it becomes easier.  As it becomes easier, those small things can become bigger things.  Before we know it, we’re the ones asking someone to make those small compromises and the cycle continues.

2.    One too many promotions

Sometimes, a leader is promoted past their level of competency.  What got them to that role won’t keep them there.  One that awareness hits, fear of loss becomes a driver more than leadership.

This is a place for empathy.  Someone did a great job at one level and was promoted to the next.  It happens all the time.  Unfortunately, when someone struggles, we often see that as their failure, when it’s more likely a failure of the leadership above them.

While our culture may promote shame for getting to this place, we should normalize recognizing what happened and asking for help.  Either the additional support and training necessary to be successful or the opportunity to step back.  Not as a sign of failure, but as a sign of successfully recognizing the needs of the person, team, and organization ahead of upward mobility.

3.    The siren call of compensation

As leaders progress in an organization, compensation grows significantly.  The most senior levels often include stretch assignments with massive bonuses tied to them.  One payout might feel like winning the lottery for someone on their team.

The siren call of money and those high-level positions can compromise our leadership.  If small compromises have become big compromises along the way, a senior leader can be poised to make decisions rooted in self-interest rather than the interests of the team or organization he or she serves.

In one organization, the leaders are seemingly amazing from January to October.  For the last two months of the year, they are like Jekyll and Hyde as they push their organizations to make compromises and questionable decisions to hit stretch assignments that are impossible to do well.

The villain comes out when those bonuses are threatened, even though they are not promised and are meant to be a stretch to push the organization to innovate.  Not to punish.

Progress over perfection

Leadership starts with leading ourselves.  Anchoring ourselves in our integrity.  Being self-aware enough to know what is happening within us and the affect we have on others.

We will be tested.  All heroes are.  We can work to retain our humility through the call of power, position, and money, and remain focused on learning.  Ask for help if we think we’ve gotten in over our heads, or step back if it’s necessary.  Not with shame, but with confidence in knowing what we need to successfully serve.

Even when we do the right thing in what we perceive is the right way, we can still be the villain in someone else’s narrative.

The goal isn’t to be perfect.  Or make everyone happy.  Instead, we can do our best and realize we can’t be a perfect or even a great leader to everyone.  We can only own our actions and reactions and do our best to stay rooted in the light.