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  • Writer's picturePatrick Novak

Top 2 Leadership Lessons from NETFLIX's "Tiger King"

CEOs are not Tiger Kings.

There's no denying the endless entertainment that Joe Exotic and "Tiger King" brought to homes all over the world. Each episode seemed to get more and more unbelievable, yet something seemed strangely familiar. Initially, I didn't put my paw on it, but then it hit me like a 700 lb tiger that had just escaped its enclosure, only to find me dining on a delicious grass-fed beef burger.

"Tiger King" is management's unintentional cautionary tail (yup - that just happened) for the modern workplace.

Its lessons may never make it to the hallowed halls of the Harvard Business School, but it certainly provides a familiar framework that far too many in corporate America have witnessed. It has all the troublesome trappings where ego, narcissism, deceit, dishonesty and every flavor of employee mistreatment becomes painfully apparent and undeniably unnecessary.

Sadly, there's a growing nexus between employee dissatisfaction, engagement, and poor leadership that's having a tremendous financial impact on corporations all over the world. Corporate culture comes from the top of the food chain (cue Tiger King). While there are many flavors of malfeasance, one of the most insidious examples is where the person in charge actively seeks to undermine their subordinates. Dr. Jonathan Booth defines this culture of corporate sabotage as supervisor social undermining.

"This is when a supervisor intentionally tries to hinder an employee’s success at work, interfere with their ability to maintain positive work relationships and attempts to tarnish their reputation." - Dr. Jonathan Booth

This behavior can occur in paddocks and causes employees to take sides and play office politics in a way that promotes and rewards division, disorganization and incompetence. Luckily there's a growing number of leaders and CEOs that are seeking to deploy emotional intelligence in a way that recognizes employees as the most valuable cats in the organization. These kinds of workplace sanctuaries are important to support and promote, while at the same time staying vigilant against corporations that only use and manipulate their people for personal gain.

If you or someone on your management team is causing a leadership crisis, step back, and follow the lessons below to tame what's making your corporate culture lame. Clawing back your company's reputation is not an easy journey, but it's a responsibility that can't be ignored. Much like leaving your arm inside of a tiger cage and looking away, it only increases the odds that you'll have something taken away.

Lesson 1: Don't treat your people like animals.

Have you ever worked at a company that touts their stale snack selection as an employee benefit? What about when firms provide clean water and then expect the employees to be grateful for this "first world privilege" when in actuality is a basic human need. Ever encounter the zoo keeper who loves reminding staff just how much the contract with the water company costs?

Decent managers know that meeting their teams needs is vital to success, but isn't this the same level of service you expect when you care for your pets?

Human beings aren't meant to be manipulated, controlled, put into to tiny little work enclosures, and then expected to show up on demand when you clap your hand. You can't train them to your every whim, use fear to move them or threaten their livelihoods if things aren't going according to your will.

Humans, much like tigers are all unique and have their own strong wills and preferences. You must embrace this as a competitive advantage. The best function that a successful manager can serve is to truly make sure that employees have the tools they need to not just do the job, but to be happy and engaged. This means giving them the freedom to find schedules that work for their own lives and a communication style that isn't excessive or intrusive.

“Are the animals happy? Who knows.” - Joe Exotic

When you give people the freedom to roam and find answers, you'll notice that they develop more of a willing participation and appreciation for how you've respected and trusted them and that's the best way for a tiger in leadership to earn their stripes.

Lesson 2: Don't let your ego run wild.

You've worked hard your whole life. You've sacrificed much to finally achieve your dream of having your very own Tiger (or Lions) den. You've appointed yourself as leader and established your royal decree of corporate responsibility. All you need now, is paying customers who have lined up to do one thing - work exclusively with you. Right?

Tiger King meeting.

“People don’t come to see the tigers; they come to see me." - Joe Exotic

Wrong! A company is very simply a collection of real values, real people, and real solutions that address a client's problem. It's not the person who roars the most or always finds a reason to boast. It's the people who enable and empower your ability to make money - that are the stars of the show. This is where Joe got it all wrong. He built everything around his self-promotion at the expense of the care and wellbeing of not only his tigers, but more importantly his human staff. We won't spoil what happened - but anyone who's dealt with an ego-obsessed narcissitically driven leader knows - the ending is as wild as those poor trapped tigers.

Tigers are sick of ZOO(m) calls.

“This is my own little town. I’m the mayor, the prosecutor, the cop, and the executioner.” - Joe Exotic

Bonus: Employees can spot a tiger with fake stripes a mile away.

When it comes to the jungle of Federal Contracting and commercial business, the leadership dynamics are complicated but competence is something staff can sense. Given that most employees spend around 2 years at any given job in the GovCon community, they are widely exposed to many wildly different leadership styles. They've developed a keen instinct for incompetence and quickly recognize when something is wrong.

It may take time for some to develop the awareness that their company is just the extension of a leader's dream for unchecked power - but don't stick around too long or else your reputation might just become something that management attempts to devour.

This awareness not only goes for employees, but also when you engage partner companies. Don't just spend time breaking bread, playing the back 9, and hanging out in business clubs. Really dig in deep to know who you are working with and what their reputation in the market is. You might be surprised what you find, but you'll be happy you took the time!


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