Victims and Leaders

In a recent board meeting, at a particularly challenging part of the conversation, I did a retrospective of the past five years as a lead up to making a point. I prefaced it by saying “I need you to take a leader approach, not a victim approach.” I realized no one knew that I meant by this, so I told a quick story, which I first heard from Jeremy Bloom, the CEO of Integrate, retired pro-football player, retired Olympic skier, and someone I adore.

Jeremy’s summary is:

“I’ve learned that there are two types of people: leaders and victims. Leaders are those who see a complex problem and figure out a way either individually or collectively to solve it. These are the people who build successful businesses, become C-Level execs and start their own companies. Victims look at problems and instantly blame everyone else when they can’t solve it. They are the finger-pointers and can rarely admit when they make mistakes. I’ve seen firsthand in football and business how victims can bring down the morale of an entire team. It’s impossible to build anything with a victim mentality.”

In the longer version of the story, he talked about his experience on the Philadelphia Eagles (amazing talent, victim mentality) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (mediocre talent, leader mentality.) He also has a great cross-over line from his experience in athletics to being an entrepreneur:

“My journey in athletics provided me with numerous lessons I apply every day in business. In athletics, for every gold medal that I won I failed 1000 more times. I became conditioned to handle the emotional swings. Possessing the mental ability to stay even keeled during the highs and lows is one of the most important skills one can possess to increase the likelihood of long term success. Any entrepreneur will tell you that there are days when they are 100% confident that they are going to change the world and other days when they aren’t sure if the company will be around in a few months. Managing the emotional swings in business comes easier to me because of my experience in athletics.”

The retrospective with the company was powerful. The company is a real company with significant revenue and over 100 employees. They’ve had numerous challenges along the way, including many disappointments with larger partners who have behaved in ways that could easily cause anyone to be cynical and take a victim approach to the world, as in “we are a victim of the capriciousness and bad behavior of our much larger strategic partner.”

The core of the company is strong. The team, especially the leadership team, is dynamite. The customer base is incredible. The technology and products are very deep. The optimistic view (the leader view) of their prospects is strong. The pessimistic view (the victim view) is one of fatigue and frustration, especially of broken promises of others.

I led with the punchline. The business was profitable in Q3. It was cash flow positive after debt service. The Q4 pipeline is solid. The new product family looks great and is off to a strong start, even though it’s early in the cycle. The broad market for their new product line is exploding. The leadership team is dynamite and very, very tight knit. The employees are smart, committed, and a good mix of long-timers and relatively new folks.

We talked for a while. One of my comments was “Fuck your historical big company partners – you know how they are wired and what their behavior is going to be. Don’t depend on them and don’t worry about them. Work with them in a collaborative, friendly way, but don’t count on them. Be a leader and create your destiny, rather than be a victim to whatever their whims are.”

As I was going through my emails this morning catching up after a long day, I was pondering the tone of entrepreneurs I work closely with, most of whom behave like leaders almost all the time. This is in comparison to a lot of other entrepreneurs I interact with but don’t work with, some who behave like leaders but a surprising numbers who behave like victims. And then I pondered this in the context of my interactions with VCs and co-investors, where again I realized that there is a lot of victim mentality in the mix.

Are you a leader or a victim?

  • I think it’s fair to say that I’m both leader and victim, struggling to be more of the former. Surrounding myself with people who are caring enough to call me out when I become a victim has helped tremendously.

  • More of a question I think. How could you be comparing them to victims if they’ve built things up as well as you say? They must be pretty leadery already. Do you make a distinction between somebody who’s a victim by nature and somebody who’s struggling due to temporary setbacks? Would you still use “victim” as a description or maybe somebody in need of either a pat on the back or a kick in the butt to get their attention?

    • You can quickly switch from a leader to victim mentality. I was encouraging them to hold a leader mentality in mind as we approached this conversation.

      • Rich

        But I think, this is just my view, when you ask if someone is a “Leader or victim” that implies you can’t be a victim if you are a leader and you can’t be a leader if you are a victim.
        .
        You are a victim of OCD does that mean you can’t be a leader?

        • Nick Ambrose

          No, it means you have to find a way to get past (or even utilize 🙂 those OCD issues and still achieve the things that need achieving regardless of whatever external stuff has happened

          • Rick

            Right but the point is using “or” in “victim or leader” means that you can only be one or the other. However that is not the case.

      • Let me generalize just a bit. I guess I see this as an instance of a trend. People will look at something for better or worse and immediately shoot to whatever extreme is associated with it.

        Politics is the glaring example of this. I consider myself a moderate. I have some views that are considered “conservative” and some that are considered “liberal” and very few of them are what I would consider to be dogmatic. However, depending on the conversation, if I express a view that is one or the other, the listener will invariably assume that I’m an “asshole conservative” or an “angry liberal” as their overall view of me even tho I’m really neither.

        Religion is another one…

        Put another way, I recall your belief in brutal honest kindly delivered (which I wholeheartedly believe in, especially with my kids). Seems like your choice of “victim” and “leader” sort of leave the kind part behind more than you might have hoped for given the obvious good work you relate the team having done over time?

        • Rick

          I don’t know if religion and politics are good things to use as examples. But I’ve tested this on both and you are right most people will apply the worst to what you say or do. Which might just be human nature but it isn’t good.

    • Rich

      Right. Victims can still be leaders and leaders can still be victims. I think if you change the wording to “Don’t let being a victim destroy your determination” then it would get the point across and make it easier for people to change state.

  • Jan Horsfall

    As Plato once said, “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I try to keep that in mind in my daily activities – especially when I’m starting something new – as the challenges within the company aren’t symmetrical for everybody at the same time. One guy’s riding a great wave, the guy next to him hacking code just took a bad fall. That’s why entrepreneurs have to be on the lookout for each other. That being said, some people are more naturally positive (a colleague of mine used to call me “Mr. Happy”), while some are just naturally more negative. The answer is to find a mindset that gets you in a more positive place as often as possible. It’s a very conscious thing one needs to do, and is associated with keeping an open mind. Good post Brad.

  • Christian Behn

    Brené Brown describes the research definition of blame as “a way to discharge pain and discomfort”. As you quoted, Brad, I think the leader mentality needs to embody the “mental ability to stay even keeled” and not give in to fatigue and frustration.

    I try to keep a close check on my own mental keel to maintain my leader mentality and I when I get the feeling that “more is becoming less” I try to take breaks, step back, chill-out and re-focus. I don’t believe in wasting energy on the blame game but, can sometimes feel myself falling in to that trap if I lose my balance.

  • Rick

    Brad, I have to say, this seems like a BAD post!!! I hope someone trained in psychology can help out here but…
    .
    You are making it sound like people should not admit to themself (<- is that correct usage?) that they are a victim. Like people with OCD being discriminated against is at odds with being a leader and they should not admit they are a victim of an illness. That's very bad. In fact that's very very very bad! That can lead to "It's all my fault type" of thinking that can bring about depression and maybe suicide.
    .
    Leaders, companies, employees anyone can and most often do become a victim at one time or another. I'm all for staying positive and trying hard. But to imply that a person who is a victim should ignore that because it's at odds with being a leader is foolish.
    .
    There are not two types of people – leaders and victims. Victims are people who have suffered from problems that may or may not have been within their control. Leaders are people who have become victims and have responded properly by becoming stronger and getting through tough times without letting it change who they are. But both are still victims.
    .
    A person can be a victim of their own mistakes. Or they can be a victim of abuse or mistreatment from others. Also victims can mistreat others because they were victims themselves.
    .
    I think you're way off base here. Again I hope someone trained in these topics can chime in on this. I also hope my post about seeing patterns of discrimination in the investing and start up world and speaking out about it hasn't sparked some kind of mental aggression within you. Causing you to want to lash out against people who are victims.

    • Could not disagree more, it is a great post.

      He is saying how do you look at problems, and truer words were never said.

      • Rick

        But to think of saying to people “Hey you stop being victims!” It brings to mind things like – stop being mugged, stop losing your job and getting thrown out of your apartment, stop being discriminated against.

        .
        I really do see patterns of discrimination in the world. There really are people going hungry. Chit-chatting on the internet is fun and stuff but it’s important to remember that people are really victims and using the word victim as the opposite of leader is silly.
        .
        I need a break from all this interweb stuff that Al Gore invented! 🙂

  • Daniel Feld

    Roles we play — Victim, Villian, Hero. Sometimes referred to as The Drama Triangle. A social and psychological model of human interaction.
    http://www.joyofconflict.com/editor_articles/ConflictDrama-VictimVillainHero.htm

    • Samantha

      I often get just as much info from the comments as I do the posts. Love this.

  • Hi Brad… I emailed you a day or two ago. I hope my email wasn’t from the “victim” sounding category.

    • Way behind on email – I just looked it up and will check out the app.

      • Thank you! Will send you an invite so you can see it as a normal user (if you want). Don’t be spooked by the invite from a “friend”.

  • Daniel Kraft

    The key learning for me here is: Pick your own destiny and don’t get pushed around. Yes, many big events are out of your control but that shouldn’t change your approach: A leader mentality is: ok, what can I do with that situation now? A victim mentality is: damn, they made me fail. It is correct, they (as in that big event) caused for you not reaching your desired outcome. But you should never allow that to define your state of mind. And since this is really really hard sometimes, once you see this with yourself, find a great board member to kick your ass and get back on track. The one thing we all want, is to build a business that delivers on our vision and that we be proud of. And no matter what the short term commercial outcome is, that results are massively impacted by the approach you’re taking.

  • In general, it does seem as though people are either victims or not-victims (the rhetoric of not-victims = leaders is quite a simplification — leaders behave in other ways, that are not not-victim, that not-leaders do not). We all have moments where we react as victims, but IMO a true victim (in addition to your description) is someone whose subconscious is intent on sabotage, who has great difficulty finding comfort in a positive outcome. I’ve worked with several c-level’s who have ruined projects and appeared to have truly had no clue until well after the smoke had cleared.

  • Vernon Briggs

    this is one of the best posts I have seen on leadership. thank you for sharing.

  • SCAQTony

    People are either victims or leaders? C’mon that’s so Bollean and nonsensical that If you truly believe that then you must think that you are “better” than 50% of the planet and that is truly terribly sad.

    Go donate some time at a special ed center or school and work with some true victims of circumstance and see if it changes your point of view.

    • Rick

      I’m with you on the nonsensical! I hope we’re misinterpreting this or something.

    • I think you are missing the point of this. I know numerous people who are victims of circumstance who take responsibility for their lives and shift to a leader mindset, even under very challenging circumstances. There are magnificent examples of this in contemporary society as well as throughout history.

      Sure – there are plenty of victims ranging from “I was hit by a car” to “I was born without arms.” But how you approach what happens next is what makes all the difference.

      • SCAQTony

        I probably did miss the point and I appreciate your clarification. I thought you you were promoting that one is either “less or more.” I see your point now.

        • Rick

          It was easy to get things mixed up because the way it was worded you could go in different directions.

      • Did you find out if you were hit by a car? Did you join that club? I was hit by a car on a walking path and they said I would never have full use my right arm again, the other friend I was with suffered massive head trauma.

        He now is a very senior exec at SAP. My arm is fine after months of going to a rehab place where you had to touch a sign at the front door every day that said: “Pain is temporary Pride is forever”

      • exactly

      • One example … Nick Vujicic. It would have been easy for him to adopt a victim mindset. He IS a leader! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgAKZSTVEs4

  • maybe if there weren’t so many people promoting the equality movement and the victim mentality it enables, this wouldn’t be such a problem

    • I’m not sure I’d put it on the equality movement. It’s something deeper than that.

  • I like that comparison.
    Simply put, victims start with excuses, blaming others. Leaders lead with a solutions, regardless of the source of problems.

    • And leaders own the problems, and their part in them.

  • yazinsai

    Steve Jobs gives employees a little speech when they’re promoted to Vice President at Apple.

    Jobs tells the VP that if the garbage in his office is not being emptied regularly for some reason, he would ask the janitor what the problem is. The janitor could reasonably respond by saying, “Well, the lock on the door was changed, and I couldn’t get a key.”

    It’s an irritation for Jobs, but it’s an understandable excuse for why the janitor couldn’t do his job. As a janitor, he’s allowed to have excuses.

    “When you’re the janitor, reasons matter,” says Jobs.

    “Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering”

    ===
    Thanks for another great article Brad!

    • I love that Jobsism. I’ve heard it many times over the years.

  • Never a truer word.
    I remember a phrase of a senior exec I greatly respected “Don’t read me the weather report, show me the fruit.”
    There will always be reasons to fail. More reasons than there ever can be to succeed. Being a leader is no guarantee of success, but being a victim is a great way to start failing.

  • identify.

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  • JLM

    .
    Could you please send a link to the White House?

    JLM
    .

  • The key is to get enough #lifechangingfailure early enough in life so you have a chance to learn this lesson at the gut level to the point where you tap into the magic in you that can result in #worldchangingsuccess.

    But it’s never too late. I waited until much later in life (age 40) to start on the path of challenging myself enough to experience the #lifechangingfailures every human needs to truly grow. I’m now 50 as of Sept 22, 2014 and have had in that decade 5 #lifechangingfailures. 2 personal and 3 professional. The latest were the failure of my startup and the end of my 25 year marriage. Many times I’ve felt the victim including as late as yesterday as I try and salvage relationship with my 16 year old and 12 yr old sons.

    So I’m taking a breather right now to rebuild mentally, emotionally, physically, and professionally and gather myself for my next 50 years with leader mentality. fortunately I’ve also found a life partner for that 50 years. She has also just “stood in the fire of failure” for the last 2 years and is ready to rise from those ashes with me. Life isn’t good, its AMAZING!

    But unless you stand in the fire and walk through it and out of it you can’t really “BE ON FIRE” the way you have to be to succeed as an entrepreneur the way “Fake Grimlock” described on this blog http://www.feld.com/archives/2011/10/be-on-fire.html THREE YEARS AGO *TODAY* WOW!!!! GO read it!!!

    • I still look at the BE ON FIRE post on a regular basis. Love that one.

  • I like the twelve second movie version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQY6IYVAfw8

    • He has some epic movie moments.

  • Rick

    Good post Brad. It’s been lots of fun. But it does make a person wonder. What can you do to help victims? I mean real victims. How do you get help with discrimination? Who do you talk to for helping victims in the world?!
    .
    Anyone here work in the legal field or something that can take this conversation serious for a minute and post some real links to real help in the real world? Are there lawyers or agencies that victims who are victims can contact?!

    • Using personal context, you get help with an issue such as discrimination by connecting with those who have been discriminated against as well, and who have found ways of coping, living, fighting back, and advocating for themselves. These people are far more often than not more than happy to help those who are in shoes they themselves have worn.

      • Rick

        But are there agencies or groups that people can contact for help when they are a victim in some way. I know for example you can contact the police if you’ve been mugged. But what about non-violent crimes? Where can people find knowledge help with such things. Is there an “Agency Helping Discrimination Victims” or something?
        .
        I know I had a neighbor who was suffering from financial problems and he ended up dead. Now that I think back on it. If I had known of an official agency or something where I could have called maybe he could have been helped.

        • You know, I am *sure* they exist – they just don’t get media attention, and so are not known to those who need them. The “major” discriminations, if you will, get attention, but others – mental illness, at-or-just-above-povery-line, life over-whelment – just aren’t sexy.

          • Rick

            Here is a real experience I had. I’m not a programmer anymore. But, years ago, I had a job as a programmer. Before I took the job I had explained that I was moving away from programming because there were some things I could not do.
            .
            The person said that was OK and if I needed help we could get something worked out. So I started and worked hard doing what needed done. Then when it came time to do certain things. I said “Can we not outsource that and I’ll focus on other tasks?” “They said no you can do it.”
            .
            So I jumped in and sure enough it started triggering my OCD. It took me extra time to get things accomplished and I was suffering while working. Keep in mind I had more than 10 years experience in the software development field and knew how things went and how good code was suppose to be written. I knew I was not the person to be working on this even if it didn’t bother me.
            .
            I said again. “You said that we’d get help with this stuff. It’s not something that I do.” They said “You can do it and if not we can probably find someone else who will do it cheaper.”
            .
            I kept trying but after a couple months of the torture and having it thrown in my face that they could replace me with someone cheaper. I just had to leave.
            .
            That’s why I’ve moved away from programming and am trying to get that FU money in the start up world.

          • Rick

            Thanks.

  • I became a leader, but it wasn’t my fault, I swear they made me do it 🙂

    Seriously, moral fibre is not something you can buy at a textile store; you either have it or you deliberately develop it through repeated acts of courage.

    You can’t demand of people that they possess it. If you do you’ll come off disappointed.

    That’s my two cents — and it’s in Canadian currency, so it’s worth even less.

  • I like the saying ‘don’t curse the darkness. Light fires’

    Surge looks cool. More like the iWatch than an activity tracker. Heart Rate monitors in the new line is smart as that is the one, of the current, features that a phone cannot replicate….

    • Thx. Look for a lot more info soon…

  • John Salvatore

    bitterness is the poison you swallow, hoping the other person will die

    • Great one. Where’s the quote from?

  • Tony

    Leaders : “These are the people who build successful businesses, become C-Level execs”.
    I must say that I’ve seen quite a few “C-level execs” who did not inspire me much as leaders, putting the blame on others and destroying organizations to enforce authority. Do the top “C-level execs” Jeff Skilling, Bernie Ebbers or Dick Fuld qualify as “leaders”. They certainly generated tons of “victims” inside and outside their companies.
    Look within your company and you may find many people who are far from C-level but offer much energy, optimism and solutions. They are leaders to me.

    • I completely agree that many C-level execs are not great leaders. The ones you listed failed, and their companies failed for a variety of reasons, but I wouldn’t refer to any of them as “leaders”, certainly not “successful leaders.”

  • been both. depending on my attitude.

    • I have eliminated excuses from my life completely. When someone is blaming me for something that I have nothing to do with, I often say “I’m happy to take responsibility for all the failings in the world.” This often changes the conversation to a productive one.

      • Nicely done, nicely said. Accountability isn’t something to make one feel miserable and hide away from the mistakes, its about taking responsibility for your words, your actions.

  • Rosey

    We are starving for leadership on so many levels Brad.

    A third category is ‘dogs.’ I read in a medieval Jewish commentary, citation long lost, that described the coming industrial revolution some 500 years later that, ‘In those days, kings shall be like dogs.’ They will run to the front of the pack in whatever direction the pack runs, looking over their shoulder, but be otherwise lawless men. Leaders, Victims and Dogs.

    My first real taste of leadership came from by father (OBM), a horse whisperer. He taught me to not ride a horse but ‘lead’ the horse while riding, before 1st grade (a pony of course). At aged 19 I ‘tabbed’ at the US Army’s Ranger school, during the Viet Nam war. The single focus of that school was to put you in to a state of over-the-top stress, sleep-deprived physical exhaustion and see if you could not just function but lead others. Victims and dogs need not apply.

    Back to you post. Couldn’t agree more.

    • I love the addition of dogs. I will use that going forward. That describes so many politicians.