Leadership Lessons from Margaritaville

July 11, 2023

Leadership insights can come from the strangest places. One of those is Jimmy Buffet's infamous ballad Margaritaville. Four simple phrases from the lyrics tell a story of how Buffet’s persona made the journey from victim to leader:

         "...a woman to blame..."

         "...nobody's fault..."

         "...could be my fault..."

         "...my own damn fault..."

This is a simple truth: You cannot be a victim and a successful leader at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive. When great leaders are disappointed with the results they are getting from their followers, their first question IS NOT, “What’s wrong with my follower(s)?” Their first question IS, “What’s wrong with my leadership style that is not getting the best from my followers.” This is the leader’s bias.

Develop the Leader’s Bias

Too often we want to blame our followers; blame an underperforming employee; blame a backstabbing peer; blame a boss who won’t listen.; blame a spouse for being stubborn; blame a child for being, well, a child…. Until a leader is ready to acknowledge it is his or her leadership skills that are the challenge, there is no hope of helping this leader to pivot in the direction of success. However, once we develop the leader’s bias, suddenly a plethora of new solutions become available to us. We start to believe we have some control.

Lead from Wherever You Are

I quite often see and hear this victim mentality in the marketplace in situations where the leader is not the boss, but a mid-level manager squeezed between their bosses and their employees. Or sometimes it is individual contributors convinced they are powerless because “management” is narrow-minded and incompetent. I even see cases where the “boss” behaves like a victim: “My business would be so much more successful if it were not for my &%^*#@! customers.” Enter my working definition of leadership: “Leadership appears to be the art of getting others to want to do something you are convinced should be done” (Vance Packard, The Pyramid Climbers). Leaders lead from wherever they are. They lead down, they lead across, and they lead up. They embrace the reality they have the ability, if they choose to work at it by applying the exemplary practices of leadership, to influence the behavior of those around them, to achieve the results they deem to be important. They understand the instant they allow the victim mentality to creep in, they abandon their responsibility (and ability) to lead. They simply refuse to allow themselves to behave like victims. They instead see themselves as master and commander of their own destiny.

Own the Responsibility

Now, just to be clear, I’m not trying to say there is no such thing as a victim. Many people in this world have been, and will continue to be, victimized by other people, and those victims are in circumstances in which they are relatively, if not completely, powerless. But in so many situations I see people playing the victim card in order to not have to do the hard work of LEADING.

Taken to an extreme one might interpret this thought process to mean you should NEVER fire a follower, that it is always the leader’s responsibility to get their followers to “want to do something you are convinced should be done.” That’s not what I’m saying either. The leader’s bias has the leader own the responsibility of leading and experimenting with new ways to influence the follower. And sometimes it becomes clear the issue is not the leader, that the issue truly is with the follower.

Make a Choice

So what do great leaders do when they come face-to-face with the reality their follower is not going to respond no matter how well the leader is demonstrating exemplary leadership behaviors? As they say, “Insanity is doing the same things but expecting to get different results.” Great leaders recognize where they are and do not keep owning responsibility that should belong to the follower. So what are our choices at this point? Fundamentally, there are two:

         • Figure out how to be content with the follower, or…

         • Fire the follower.

The first does sound like a lousy option. Maybe, but let me frame this one with a little quote I read on a cross-stitch sampler when I was a teen: “Be to her virtues a little kind, be to her faults a little blind.” Sometimes in the interest of relationship, we must choose to be okay with the follower as they are. I have been successful over 30+ years at leading my wife in many things. However, there are some of my wife’s behaviors I have concluded I will never be successful at leading her to change. I am not going to fire my wife. So rather than be frustrated, I have CHOSEN to be content. This is not being a victim. I made the choice.

Your Challenge

If the follower you just can’t seem to lead is your boss, firing your follower means finding a new job. If the follower you can’t seem to lead is an employee who solely possesses critical skill your business can’t do without, firing your follower may mean taking a risk you can’t afford. There are a number of reasons why the first choice above is not optimal, but the second may be a very difficult option.

So I would like to challenge you with looking at yourself, as well as those you are currently leading. Do you possess the leader’s bias? Or do you have a tendency to behave as a victim? Do you have any followers you need to fire? Do you have any followers in whom you need to choose to be content?

Oh, and if you have missed the great ballad by Jimmy Buffet, here’s a link to it from YouTube

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