The Anti-Hero Syndrome: Leadership Lessons from Dexter

It’s unconscious but undeniable: what we feed our heads feeds our lives and our leadership values. The more conscious we are about it, the better off we are. It’s a good question to ask ourselves as leaders, and a great way to open up ideas in leadership training.

Identifying which fictional world is feeding our leadership hungers, personally and philosophically, means we connect with a powerful source of comfort, inspiration and potentially, self-awareness. Sometimes that awareness can be a little uncomfortable, but it’s always useful, and often intriguing.

dexter_1310284_616I’ve been paying attention to my own unconscious hungers lately, as I’ve revisited an old favorite, Dexter, one of the ultimate anti-hero fantasies. For those who missed it, it’s the story of a serial killer/forensic blood analyst, a man with a secret — he only kills other serial killers. But sensationalist murder/policing aside, there are some complicated leadership puzzles embedded in this entertainment.

The main themes, apart from the bloody murders and vengeance, might surprise a few folks. They include:
-an outsider anti-hero who is different and must learn to accept himself
-the effects of childhood trauma on adult relationships and identity
-the struggle to live life with integrity and morality
-the struggle to find love and belonging
-the struggle to tell right from wrong
-the struggle to do the right thing when you’re backed into a corner
-the challenge to present a consistent and persuasive identity
-the search for authenticity above all

Dexter is an well written entertainment in a popular genre. I like the genre because it combines psychological thriller and cop show, and the characters and their relationships keep me engaged (even though I don’t always appreciate the violence). But looking at the big questions behind the entertainment value brings my obsession into a more interesting focus. Making these questions more conscious also helps me track my thinking so I can make the changes I need to make, and maybe spend a little less time binge watching and more time making a difference in the world.

There’s a lot of paradox in this story. Authenticity for Dexter means balancing two seemingly opposing selves: his “dark passenger” that demands he kill to satisfy his urges, and the hungry child, wounded and vulnerable, who wants to fit in and be normal, respected. In both lives, he wants to be a leader — a heroic avenger in his secret life, and an upright citizen and good husband in his public life.

b6c587f97cddc56fa1cf201fd4548bd8If we cut the extreme plot device of the serial killer storyline, here’s a story that mirrors the secret heart of many leaders, with inner passions that push them to ambitious, risky, visionary and uncertain dreams, while they navigate the complex demands of daily life.

Watching TV is more than a distraction; it helps us explore meaning making. As I’ve written in my explorations of neurology, leadership and media“Our brains experience fictional worlds as reality, with a pinch of salt. We suspend our disbelief, but then we dive into a fantasy as detailed internal experience, sometimes more satisfying than our lives.”  The key is to step back sometimes and take action to make our lives more satisfying than the fiction that feeds our thinking. It really helps to look at the stories that hold our attention most deeply and obsessively, the ones we think about, look forward to, and talk about with our friends. Those are the ones that can teach us about ourselves.

For me, I think Dexter as a character, and the issues he faces, mirror (without the murder!) the big questions in my own life as a leader. How do I share my vision and offer my gifts when I see the world from a different angle from others? How do I decide what’s important to share, so I can be authentic and real? How do I want to be/need to be perceived in order to be the best leader I can be for my clients and my community? How do I balance my personal and professional lives so I can be satisfied and effective in both?

tumblr_nw8ajrxkvp1tq2lh8o1_1280So in this case, I’ve set a few goals, while continuing to enjoy my Dexter viewing, looking at these big picture questions that Dexter entertains me into wondering about:

  1. I’m scheduling more friend time every week. (I know, it sounds a little too formal, but I run my own business, and I can sometimes overwork. Scheduling friend time is a way of practicing balance until it becomes second nature.)
  2. I’m aligning my websites, my timeline and my goals to see where I want to shift my “image” and my work to be more effective and authentic.
  3. I’m doing my regular spring cleaning self-assessment, looking at my life to see where  my coaching and writing mentoring feels satisfying, and where I feel I’m falling short as a leader in the field. Where can I give more? Where am I giving too much and not making a difference? What’s the next big passion project?

How about you? Are you telling yourself something about your leadership hungers when you’re feeding your brain with a favorite TV show or movies? What are you watching lately, and how might it make you a better, more satisfied leader?










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