Sometimes, It’s Okay To Be The Villain

Ryan Pannell, CEO and Chair, at Kaiju Worldwide.

Long ago, when I started my career building and managing companies, I aspired to be a different kind of leader. I wanted to be the CEO everybody liked. My relationships with employees, partners, clients and vendors would all be positive, and I would avoid the bad business experiences I’d heard about from peers and those who’d been leading longer than I had. But as I worked my way through the corporate minefield and continued to grow as a leader, I realized that this vision was not sustainable (or in some cases, even possible). At some point along that road, I was going to be someone’s villain, and there was little I could have done to have changed that certainty.

In my roles as a fund manager and a founder and CEO of different companies, I’ve learned an important lesson: Sometimes, it’s okay to be the villain. You too will probably be vilified (or have been vilified) for something at some point in your career—whether or not it’s actually your fault—and you may have developed an internal process for dealing with these situations. If you haven’t, let me share mine.

Being The Bad Guy For A Good Reason

Early in my career, being perceived as the bad guy hit me hard. I led small companies and had

close-knit relationships with my employees and clients, so when a negative interaction occurred, it stung. I went to great lengths to resolve these issues, even when I wasn’t at fault or the demands were unreasonable, simply because I didn’t want to be disliked. But I accepted over time that in some situations, whether interpersonal relationships or business partnerships, people need you to play the villain to be able to move on. The common theme there is that someone makes a mistake, and then they have two options: accept accountability, or make it your fault. Accountability involves admitting fault and facing the consequences, which is often an uncomfortable process. There may be history or trauma involved that makes it impossible—or unadvisable, without professional guidance—for the person at fault to even contemplate that process, and “being right” isn’t a great reason to enable the continuation of someone’s shame spiral. But the alternative is the choice to shift the blame to others, and in this case, that’s you

As an asset manager, I’ve experienced the second scenario with investors who had mismanaged their expectations or cash requirements. Clients who made multiple investments outside of my purview that didn’t go well came to me demanding things I couldn’t deliver, such as immediately improving my returns or making a redemption possible outside of the defined redemption period. In their minds, my inability or unwillingness to help them made me—rather than their own mismanagement—the cause of their misfortunes.

As a leader, I have had similar experiences. When I led a Canadian company that paid the on-site change management team in U.S. dollars, an employee blamed me for currency fluctuations affecting their paycheck and demanded I make up the difference, which I couldn’t do. Of course he’d never complained when the rate was in his favor or offered to give back the extra gains. I was limited in the solutions I could offer and explained that over and over again, but it was no use; he couldn’t accept that his decision was the cause of the bad outcome and needed it to be my fault to be able to move on. Even though I recognized this in the moment, I still took their anger to heart. No matter how I explained these situations, I would remain the villain in their narrative in the future, and ultimately the price was the relationship in its entirety.

In time, I began to understand that these conflicts weren’t really about me as a person; they were about the role I was playing in someone else’s story. And if they needed me to be the bad guy to cope, learn and grow, then I decided I was okay with taking on that role. I can put my ego aside to do something good for someone else; I don’t need to be right all the time.

Three Steps For Moving Forward

It was a personal journey for me to figure out how to evaluate these difficult situations, decide how to proceed, and ultimately be at peace with the outcomes. If you’re in the same place and struggling with how to process your own vilification, I recommend taking these three actions to help discover your own process.

1. Evaluate Your Villain Status

Take a step back and assess whether you genuinely are the villain in the scenario. It’s possible that you are in the wrong, and if you are, then it’s time to consider accountability and repairing the damage. If you struggle with self-evaluation, ask for input from a trusted source. And don’t be afraid of accepting fault or being accountable—even if you’re not 100% sure you are at fault—because that process is hugely empowering. The belief that we should never be wrong or never admit fault is one of the most unhelpful by-products of the perceived benefit of certainty the previous generations have passed down to us. If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t learn; if you’re never at fault, you won’t grow. Accepting responsibility puts you in control. You now have the power to change. Refusing to accept fault simply guarantees that you’ll repeat the same mistakes, again and again.

2. Examine The Upsides

Try to understand what benefit you being the villain holds for the other person (assuming we’re past point one, and you’re pretty sure you’re not awful). If it’s someone you care about, consider pushing them toward accountability and owning the results of their actions, which can be an important growth opportunity for them and really the only way you’re going to have any chance of saving the relationship

3. Accept Your Role

If it’s not someone you care about, but you feel their inability to close the gap and accept their fault is rooted in trauma, then take one of life’s rare opportunities to be kind to someone that others have clearly not been kind to, and let your vilification be part of their healing process. Or, if they’re irrelevant and it’s certain you’ll never do business with them again, then let it go, and be their villain; what they think of you is largely immaterial.

By navigating these types of challenging interactions in my career, I’ve learned that the process of evaluating, understanding and embracing your role as a villain can be empowering at times. While we all prefer to be liked and appreciated, there are situations where playing the bad guy can be the most compassionate approach—for both of you. By accepting this role in someone else’s narrative, you may help them through their own journey of growth and development, and in the end, whether they ever give you credit for it, that’s what being a good leader is all about.

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