A Coaching Power Tool Created by Chris Keating
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. We’re all the hero of our own story.- Jim Butcher, novelist
What images does the term “hero” invoke? A knight? A champion athlete? A saint? A firefighter rescuing a child from a burning building? A teacher grading papers late at night?
What images does the term “villain” invoke? An ugly man stroking his oily handlebar mustache while hatching schemes? A bank robber wearing a mask and carrying a gun? A witch on a broomstick, cackling with demented laughter?
And what is the relationship between a hero and a villain? Can you have one without the other? They seem to be symbiotic, each drawing energy from the presence of the other. The hero has her own purpose, usually something noble but difficult to achieve. The villain is an evil figure whose unsavory actions and motivations serve to impede or defeat the hero.
And what is a story, if it involves a hero and villain? The story is the series of events in which the hero and villain do battle. It generally has a building of action, elements of suspense, sudden reversals of fortune, and a dramatic climax. A story keeps our interest and encourages us to root for the hero.
Stories started long before we were born: ancient mythology, the Old Testament, and even the oral tradition. Stories are deeply rooted in our mental makeup, derived from our ancestors who lived in small tribes and had “villains” that posed existential threats. As civilization developed, and with each new medium – written language, the printing press, film, radio, television, the internet – stories remained as a dominant framework up to the present day.
Turn on the television and what will you find? Cop shows where they attempt to catch bad guys. Political debates in which each side vilifies the other, depending on which channel you chose. Football games, which can become fun to watch only if you have a rooting interest. (And isn’t it strange how the more you want your team to win, the more the other side seems to resemble villains, who only succeed through luck, cheating, or biased officiating! Meanwhile, fans rooting for the other team see our team as villainous, lucky cheaters who benefit from biased officiating!)
But do heroes always behave nobly? Do villains always behave badly? The stories of our time would suggest otherwise.
In the movie “Cape Fear”, one character has been jailed unjustly because his lawyer intentionally ignored evidence that would have led to an acquittal. But the story is told from the point of view of the lawyer, who is positioned as the hero! When the jailed individual uses his time in jail to study law and research his own case, he discovers what the lawyer did. One would think we would be rooting for him to get revenge, but instead we are made to cheer for the lawyer, even though he is the one “in the wrong”.
In the classic novel “Lolita”, we are told the story of a pedophile who targets very young girls and also is responsible for at least one murder. But somehow, because it is told from his own point of view, we find ourselves rooting for this horrid yet somehow charming person. Some prominent literary critics have made this admission, much to their own chagrin and confusion.
Many television shows feature protagonists who are misogynists (Two and a Half Men), drug kingpins (Breaking Bad) and even serial killers (Dexter). Even the most loathed villains in a drama or soap opera can be rated by fans as the most popular character, the one they “love to hate”.
In the realm of professional wrestling (sometimes called “soap operas for men”), every character must align to either the “good guy side” or the “bad guy side”. In the parlance of wrestling, the hero is the “babyface” and the villain is the “heel”. It happens frequently that a heel unexpectedly becomes popular and receives cheers, or a babyface becomes unpopular and is booed. The response? The promoters engineer a “turn”, in which that character “switches sides”, usually without making a meaningful change to their persona or behaviors.
And so, the entire concept of “heroes” and “villains” is based mostly in perspective and perception, rather than objectivity and reality.
In our own lives, each of us likes to imagine ourselves as the hero of our own story. Of course we are! But as we proceed through our day, trying to accomplish our tasks, we encounter a seemingly endless stream of villains: lazy co-workers, inept service providers, bad drivers, clueless pedestrians, and so on. The cry goes out from our judgmental selves: “Villains!” We also create villains from inanimate objects – the train that pulled away just as we arrived, the refrigerator that malfunctioned, or the TV remote that stopped working. Our cast of villains even includes abstractions – “the political system”, “technology”, or “corporate greed”.
In most cases, though, we “let go” of the story easily enough. We know the rainstorm didn’t happen just so that our tennis match would be ruined. The guy who drove through a red light didn’t do it just to spite us, even if we reserve the right to think he’s a jerk. But sometimes we hold on tight to the story.
Coaching Application: Example Situation
Imagine the following scenario:
Grace arrives at your coaching session, and she is visibly upset. Her boss Linda just “did it again”. At a high-profile meeting earlier in the day, Grace was scheduled to give a 15-minute presentation to the executive committee on a successful long-term initiative she had just completed. With your assistance, she had prepared extensively and was ready to impress the top brass. But Linda unexpectedly showed up at the meeting. Instead of staying quiet throughout the presentation, Linda seemed to speak at the end of every PowerPoint slide, adding all sorts of additional commentary. Sometimes she interrupted Grace, sometimes she contradicted Grace, and sometimes she made points that were about to be covered on the next slide, thus throwing Grace off her script. Grace left the meeting feeling defeated and confused. Adding insult to injury, Linda caught up with Grace a few minutes later and told her “great job – they loved it!” Grace felt like this was the bully rubbing her face in the dirt. And she and Linda used to be such good friends, before Grace started reporting to her.
This seemed to be just the latest in an ongoing pattern. Linda enjoyed “golden child” status in the organization, and Grace felt as though it was impossible to get out of Linda’s shadow and establish her own personal brand. This presentation was going to be a huge opportunity for Grace to step into the spotlight that Linda was always hogging. Linda had many successful projects of her own, and yet she couldn’t let Grace have one shining moment.
Coaching Application: Recognition
In the example scenario, the client has drawn the coach into a one-sided story in which she is an unambiguous hero. And since every great hero needs a great villain, she has cast Linda in that role. It would be very tempting for a coach to sympathize and “take sides” with their client, especially if the coach has been working alongside the client on a desired outcome and the “villain” has upset the apple cart. This could even happen without the coach realizing it!
(As an aside, it is worthwhile to point out that there are other variations on this story. In some instances, a client will cast themselves as the villain. Or they may downgrade themselves from hero to helpless victim. If either or both of these happen repeatedly, it should raise a concern that there could be a deeper issue present that might be better served in therapy.)
The coach must first recognize that the hero/villain construct is in play to avoid being pulled into the story. The recognition can come through an observation of the storyteller, the story, or the coach herself. Here is what to watch for:
A hero/villain storyteller is likely to exhibit these characteristics:
- They may be fueled by powerful emotion while they tell the stories.
- They may tell the story with particular skill, flow, and speed (sometimes in stark contrast to their normal style of speech).
- They may repeat the story (with further embellishments) many times to many people.
- They may invite you to agree (e.g. "Don't you think...?" "Can you believe...?"), especially with the idea of the villain being quite terrible!
A hero/villain story is likely to have these elements:
Hyperbolic villain imagery:
- “He's a monster!”
- “What a coward!”
- “She crushed my spirit!”
- “They destroyed our chances!”
Blanket statements of self-acquittal:
- “I did everything in my power.”
- “I never did anything to her.”
- “I played by the rules.”
- “I have been nothing but nice.”
References to absolutes:
- “He is the worst...”
- “She is the most...”
- “Every time...”
- “Not once...”
Phrases of judgment:
- “What kind of a person does that?”
- “How can they sleep at night?”
- “They are sick!”
- “What a *@^%!”
If the coach falls into the story, they may do some of the following:
- Validate the villain character ("You're right about her being a monster").
- Validate the hero character ("A great person like you deserves to be treated better").
- Own the emotion of the story (Silently: "I wish I could give them a piece of my mind!”).
- Feel suspense (“And then what happened? Wow!”)
- Encourage revenge ("How do you plan to fight back?").
- Make "winning" the new unspoken outcome ("How can you get the last laugh?")
Coaching Application: Supporting a Shift
Even if the coach manages to recognize what is happening, there is still the problem that the client is not looking at the situation with neutrality or detachment. In the above scenario, Grace may not want to let go of her judgment and become curious about the situation and Linda’s true role in it. One could easily imagine a strong reaction from Grace to any suggestion that Linda may not be, in fact, a hateful villain. Efforts to focus on options and future actions may be avoided or rejected due to the strength of the righteous anger or bitter resentment our client is feeling.
Part of the art of coaching is knowing when the client is ready to shift their perspective. (This topic is outside the scope of this power tool.) At the appropriate time, this powerful question can be asked of Grace:
- If Linda was sitting here instead of you, and she was talking about this situation, what would she be saying?
This question invites Grace to step out of her own story and imagine Linda’s story. Grace may struggle with this at first, and it is imperative that the coach maintain the space and allow the shift to begin.
Further questions such as these will support the shift of perspective:
- Is Linda aware of the behavior that bothers you?
♦ If the answer is a quick and emphatic "yes", then ask "how do you know this?"
- Is she aware of the impact it had?
- Is she aware of your goals and her place in them?
- What do you suppose Linda's motivation was?
The point of these questions is to convert judgment, which is fixed, into curiosity, which is flexible. At that point, the hero/villain construct begins to lose its power.
Coaching Application: “Coach, Heal Thyself”
As coaches, we sometimes cast ourselves as the heroes of our coaching practice. Isn’t it fun to tell a story of how we helped our client solve their difficult problem, using our brilliant insight, our keen perception, our well-timed powerful question, and so on? And after all, most of us got into this to help people. What could be nobler than that? We are heroes, right? (Right??)
Remember, every good hero needs a good villain, and from time to time, we might catch ourselves blaming a “bad client”. Watch out for your own judgments:
“I tried my best, but they just didn’t get it.”
“This guy won’t answer my questions.”
“She never does her homework.”
“Why do I bother?”
“What a train wreck!”
You might very well be building your own little story, and wouldn’t your clients be shocked to learn that some of them have been cast as villains!
In reality, we are only human, and this can happen at any time. We are hardwired to indulge in stories, and what could be more interesting material for a story than our own life? The key, as with so many things in coaching and in life, is to cultivate ever greater awareness. You can always acknowledge yourself and the good you do. Just don’t try to be a hero!