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Good Guys and Bad Guys

Every great and truly interesting villain believes they are the good guy.

Darth Vader believed he was bringing a more efficient galactic order to a chaotic universe. The Wicked Witch of the West was getting her props after some farm-girl dropped a house on her sister for no apparent reason. Thanos was just a super-woke dude concerned about the carbon footprint of cosmic over-population.

Take any quality creative writing course, and you’ll learn that excellent bad guys should be at least a little sympathetic. The reader should get a clear glimpse into how the bad guy got that way and why he sees his actions as justifiable if not entirely just. Narratives that fail to do this are usually uninteresting and two-dimensional.

Wholly righteous protagonists fighting wholly evil villains make great propaganda, but terrible stories.

But here’s the sticky-wicket. When you step out of the black-and-white land of make-believe and into the real world of business, politics, and social relations, how do you know who’s who? Well, it depends on who’s telling the story and whose eyes you’re looking through.

I’m not suggesting some squishy post-modern/subjectivist view of life in which there is no real truth… only social constructions, experiences, and points of view. Truth does exist. If truth exists, then so does falsehood. And if those two things are true, then at a fundamental level good and evil do in fact exist as well.

The problem is this: we all greatly overestimate our own goodness and other people’s badness. If left unchecked, this turns leaders into zealots, visionaries into ideologues, and artists into propagandists.

Think about the “bad guys” in your life: the ruthless contract negotiator, colleague who undermined you in a recent project, unscrupulous business competitor, or the annoying neighbor with the campaign signs opposite to yours. There’s a good chance that one or more of them has a story in which they are the hero and you are the foe that needs vanquishing.

If you want to lead, create, and compete at your highest level of potential, then you need to consider those stories in which you are the bad guy.

Most of that story is false, but some aspect of it is true. Great leaders know how to face that part of themselves, own it, and if needed, change.

The reverse is also true.

Every “villain” in your life has something good in them. That something can be called-out-to or at least given the maximal opportunity to bloom. The best mentors in my life did not find me at my best, they often found me at my worst. They separated my behavior from who I was, and could be, as a person. They didn’t cast me out. They inspired me to be better.

We all have greatness in us. All of us can also suck pretty horribly at times. A world that’s only full of comic book heroes and cartoon bad guys is world where eventually… we all get cancelled.

So, take heart in this good news. Others are not nearly as bad as we might want them to be and we are not yet nearly as good as we could be.

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