The Main Thing

The Main Thing

“The main thing is to be damn sure that the main thing is really the main thing.”*


If you don’t know what the “main thing” is you damn sure better figure out what the “main thing” is.  Because it’s damn hard to do the “main thing” when you don’t know what the “main thing” is.


*James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape

A World Without Villains


Last Sunday, Ann Patchett was interviewed on CBS.  Ann is a writer and independent book store owner.  The story was largely about that interesting vocational connection.  But what intrigued me was a short interaction Patchett had with interviewer Leslie Stahl near the end of the interview.

In the interview Stahl observed of Patchett’s writing …

… she can’t write villains. “I am terrible,” she (Patchett) said. “I see their point of view, I feel for them. I’m really a total failure at bad people.”

Later Stahl asks…

“So, if you were to write a book about independent bookstores up against some gigantic force from out there? Maybe something called Barnes & Noble? Or something called Amazon? You could probably create a villain!”

“I couldn’t even make Amazon a villain,” she replied, … I’m sorry. No villain!”

When the story ended I was struck by that notion – what if there were no villain?

No villain in my story.

No villain in your story.

No villain at all.

What if, like in Patchett’s stories, people who did “evil” things were not seen as “villains”, but as people who, for some very unfortunate reasons, found themselves fleshing out some “bad” behavior – sometimes “very bad” behavior.

When I process leadership, the idea of being able to blame a person or group for the trouble around me is very seductive.  To the extent that I can objectify or vilify “those people” (who I have declared as the source of trouble) I can remove myself from having to think too hard about the larger systemic challenges alive in the culture/world around me.  Systems of which I might play a dysfunctional part in.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that destructive actions should have no consequences.  They should.  For everyone.  Including me.  But as a community member, healthy leadership demands that I think harder about the individuals behind my judgement – and the stories that bring them (and me) to any given moment.

But how are we supposed to do that when some of these actions feel so offensive?

I’d like to offer a few thoughts of what I try to do.  I don’t always succeed – but these things seem to help me.  Maybe you will find them helpful as well.

When I’m emotionally charged by a perceived wrong that has me ready to declare the blame on a single individual or group I try to…

  1. Choose to hold my pronouncement of their judgement for a time – five minutes, an hour, a day, a week.  Speaking judgement quickly often has me saying things I don’t mean about things I don’t understand.
  2. In the time I’ve allotted, I disallow my own triggered or dramatic responses in any public way.  This is about managing myself.  I admit to myself that I am bothered – offended – even incensed.  But I seek to master those emotions and set them aside (as best I can) for just a bit.  Not forever – just for a bit.
  3. I try my best to stay curious, allowing myself to consider what back story could bring a person (any person) to do what I have deemed as such a “bad thing”?
  4. Without justifying behavior, I consider if there is any logic to how this person or group might have found themselves in the midst of these tragic actions.
  5. I entertain the notion that there is more than just my story at play in the scenario before me.  I don’t have to believe or affirm those stories – just acknowledge that my interpretation of the story may not the only one.

Let’s face it.  People make “poor” choices from time to time – including me — but these action steps help me to be more than a reactor to them.  They help me stand a little closer to Ann Patchett, “I’m sorry.  No villain.”