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Leadership Lessons from The Tiger King


Hey all you cool cats and kittens!  If you haven’t watched the runaway Netflix hit, The Tiger King – get thee to thine television!   It’s crazy and fascinating and a quarantine smash!  So, what better to learn from then one of the kookiest casts of characters you will ever find?  Spoiler alert – if you think you might watch the show – watch it and read this after.

 Lesson One – Don’t let your ego get in the way of your goals.

Joe Exotic (born Joseph Schreibvogel) started off with a pet shop and a love of animals.  By the time we meet him, he’s selling and breeding tigers, posting music videos and trying to become a reality tv star.  He treats both his employees and his animals poorly.  His business is in financial disarray, and he’s also running for President.  Really?

Now, you may think, “But Joe is bananas, I’d never do any of that!”

Well, I bet every one of you has had a boss who let their ego get in the way of leading effectively.  Maybe it was just a refusal to admit they were wrong.  Or maybe it was not listening to someone who had a good idea.   Maybe it was never letting anyone else speak in meetings.  This pops up in hundreds of ways.   Happens at home too – sometimes we fight to win an argument (ego) and forget we really want our spouse to love us (goal).   Ask yourself – has there been a time you let your ego get in the way of your goals?   (If you say no, it’s getting in the way right now.)

Lesson Two – People want to do something important with their lives.

All three of the Big Cat Leaders, Joe, Carole, and Doc Antle have followers.  People who are willing to do absolutely over the top things to help them.  So, you could argue they have some leadership skills (disturbing as that is).   How can this be?

It’s the mission.  The people they have following them care deeply about the animals.  I’ve worked at both the Oklahoma City Zoo and the San Antonio Zoo and I can tell you, animal people REALLY love animals.  They’ll work for next to nothing in tough conditions to care for them.  Good leaders have to remind their people about the impact they have.  I think this virus has shown us how important so many jobs are and how dependent we are on each other.  Leaders must remind followers of the higher calling – all the time.

 Lesson Three – Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Carole Baskin has a HUGE social media presence.  She is constantly talking with her followers and volunteers via her posts and updates.  Joe’s people, on the other hand, had no idea what was going on most of the time.  Carole has people who are willing to work for her for free.  Joe has people who will testify against him in court.

Leaders are busy, busy, busy!  But they have to make communicating with their people a priority.  This is especially important in time of crisis.  I never thought I’d be watching any politician every day, but during the coronavirus pandemic I’m watching the President and Governor Cuomo constantly.  But forget about times of crisis, just during normal day-to-day work, I believe most leaders don’t communicate enough.  You have to make time to mentor, train, praise, and update your people.  Double your current communication as a start.

Lesson Four – You must treat people fairly – no favoritism.

Two of our Tiger King leaders were married to more than one of their employees at the same time.  (I know, if you haven’t seen it, trust me, it’s true.)  I feel certain none of you are married to even one of your employees.  But it is very possible you have a favorite or two.  You have to work very, very hard to treat everyone fairly.  Note that I am not saying the same.  I think if you treat a superstar exactly the way you treat a mediocre employee, you are setting yourself up to lose the superstar.

Another problem this can cause is you wind up asking your favorite to do more work than the slacker, because you know they will.  And thus, you punish your friend and enable the slacker.

Lesson Five – Be for something rather than against something.

Joe really lost himself when all he focused on was Carole.  Instead of building his organization and team, all he tried to do was tear Carole down.  She got all his attention and his own people got none.  His obsession with her cost him everything.

But this is easy to do.  Think how easy it has been to focus on the coronavirus.  Yes, there were actions we had to take and lessons we will learn.  But sitting around all day watching nothing but virus updates, does not serve us.  This is beyond our control.  To be effective leaders we must focus on what we can control.  If Joe had focused all his zany energy and creativity on making his park a better place and growing his team, well, he wouldn’t be in jail right now.  And who knows how amazing a place he might have built?

I don’t know what industry you are in.  But I’m quickly finding out that our country runs best when we’re all doing our part – we are so interconnected.  Farmers, delivery drivers, doctors and nurses, CPAs, teachers, software engineers, electric linemen and on and on and on – everyone plays an important part you don’t even appreciate when everything is “normal.”  I’ve only been officially under a stay home order one day, but I sure miss seeing all of you in person.  I’m more grateful for you than ever.  And I realize how very many things I’ve taken for granted.  Can’t wait to see you on the other side!

(In the meantime – watch The Tiger King!)


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2 years ago

Hey Denise! Not sure I speak for everyone (but, I bet I do) – we miss you, too!!! Now more than ever, we all need the encouragement you deliver so well. How I wish I could get your message in The Tiger King article across to everyone and I mean everyone who lives and breathes – we’d all be so much better. The sad part is, those who need it the most would not recognize how much they need it. Hope you are well; continue to spread the love and support, Denise!