Holy Bruce Wayne, Batman. In the last 75 years there have been 14 Batman movies. That’s almost as frequent as the Olympic Games! Don’t forget Superman, Spiderman, other individual superheroes, the Avengers and Justice League franchises, and the list goes on. There are spin-offs of spin-offs, and characters unite in weird and wonderful combinations. What is our perpetual fascination with the superhero? The man/woman who in endowed with super human powers and abilities. The box office hit Thor: Ragnarok is no exception. Ok, ‘technically’ Thor is a god, but the same applies. There are many layers to the mythology of these larger than life characters which resonate with us. But why?
We invite you to consider your organisation as sitting within superhero ranks: with your leaders as the Wonder Women and Tony Starks of the corporate world. These could be your formal, organisational leaders (Executive Leadership Team), or your informal leaders: those who sit amongst the mere mortals, yet wield the influence of a titan.
So what is it about the ‘magic’ of the superhero? There’s the duality of the character in regular life versus emergency/crisis; the costumes or uniforms by which these characters are recognised; the leadership capabilities of an influential figure; the frequently common athletic prowess (or at least high performance in one way, shape or form). And then of course the superpowers. Superheroes are often operating in a high stakes environment, and so the impacts of their actions and decisions will be important, and enduring.
WHO THEY ARE
Performers. The parallel between superheroes and athletes and super business people is not a very long bow to draw. They are all performers; they are executors; they are do-ers; they do things. They achieve objectives that are visible, tangible and often admirable. Superheroes are mentally tough and often have physical prowess – not unlike an athlete. The common thread of ‘mind over matter’ can be seen amongst many top business leaders alike.
In asking the question of ‘where do superheroes come from?’ we encounter the age-old psychology debate of nature versus nurture. Are we a product of our DNA, or our environment? Most people would argue that superheroes, and leaders, are made not born. The matrix of life’s experiences build upon, develop or create patterns of thinking, behaving and responding.
Superheroes are the figures who rise to the occasion in an emergency or crisis. They come in two flavours: heroic and stoic. Heroic superheroes, and leaders, save the day; they are busy saving people and cities (organisations), and pride themselves on protecting the vigour of a vision, and maintaining high standards. They are zealous and represent ideals. Stoic superheroes on the other hand (think Batman), and leaders, believe that reason – without the interruption of negative emotion – conquers challenges. Each has a role to play in a crisis: whether it be motivating others (heroic), or taking a step back for objectivity (stoic). Both are strategic thinkers who can arrive at results, albeit via different means. There is certainly room for diversity amongst superheroes and in leadership.
WHAT THEY DO
Turn coal into diamonds. The ability to manage a high-pressure situation in an advantageous way is a hallmark of a superhero, and super-leader. Superheroes respond to call to arms – for example when the Bat Signal is raised over Gotham city, Batman knows there is either something urgent or important that requires his attention and skill. This may be in the form of an emergency (requiring immediate response), or a situation which calls for a more tactical or strategic set of responses.
Superheroes routinely face fears. This includes dealing with their own fears, and frequently those of ‘the people’. Ever wondered why each superhero has his or her own famed stance? The psychological research on body language has shown that by ‘power posing’ (shaping our bodies in particular ways), our brain releases certain chemicals preparing us for stress and risk, and impresses upon others that we are not mucking around. There’s a job to be done, and I’m here to do it.
Creating strategic alliances for competitive advantage is a good way to save the world: and good business. Super-leaders understand this, and in building winning teams they frequently design teams with a strengths based approach. Strengths based psychology (or positive psychology) really focuses in on people’s strengths. In banding together a team, diverse strengths can be unified and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Superheroes and super-leaders understand two more things: performance is cyclical, and leadership isn’t free. First, performance is a highly prized activity, yet even Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. Performance-release-rest is an important trilogy. Release and rest are what we could commonly call ‘relaxation ‘. For example Superman takes to the sky for some R and R, and Spiderman scales buildings with projectile webs. The performance-reward paradigm in the business world is often:
1) close a big deal;
2) celebrate; and/or
3) take a holiday.
Rest provides a break from the ‘bad’ kind of stress. Release allows for a reset. The different between the two is that while rest requires downtime, release can be highly energising. Second, leaders understand that the exchange for the privilege of the leadership position, comes at the cost of self interest. With great power comes great responsibility. And so, leaders may well ‘eat last’.
WHAT THEY HAVE
Superpowers…and super vices. Take Superman, with his super human abilities, or Achilles, the mythological hero and supreme Greek warrior. While each character has legendary finesse and tenacity (and their own ‘superpowers’), they still have each have an ultimate ‘weakness’. Instead of talking about weaknesses for leaders we can talk about leaders’ ‘derailers’ – their overplayed strengths. This is something that, unmanaged, can disrupt optimum leadership within an organisation. The ‘dark side of leadership’ looks to how leaders behave under stress, and psychological tools exist to measure and interpret these disruptors.
Superheroes sit at an apex of status and influence. They are beacons to guide society and they move ordinary citizens to action. They are simultaneously glamorised and have a level of humility that makes them not completely unrelatable. They are respected because they are superhuman, but ultimately loved because of their human-ness. Similarly, super-leaders who embody humility are more likely to keep connected with their followers. ‘Followship’ is an important element of leadership. At the end of the day, the leader is one person, and they are influencing the many.
In the comic world, we recognise superheroes from one another because of their costumes and super powers. It would be difficult to pick our Clark Kent in a crisis and expect him to respond. Generally, each of the superheroes can best use his or her powers when they focus. The imperative of laser focus is becoming an ever increasing challenge given the world of distractions in which we live today. There is a strong business case for the art of focus moving forward in leadership.
Each superhero has their own distinctive modus operandi also. Similarly, there are many different styles of leadership adopted in the corporate world. Some styles emphasise the importance of leadership traits, others really emphasise the followers, while others yet look at leadership from a transformational perspective, and others still focus are more adaptive and flexible allowing for a focus on the situation to distaste leadership.
A final organ to the anatomy of the superhero is their legacy. Each superhero has a story (where they come from), and a legacy (what they leave to the world). Similarly, effective leadership within organisations leaves a legacy. The point is not that this remains preserved in a gilded cage, but rather shines as a beacon for how organisations, and the people within them, can be transformed for the better.
Superheroes and super-leaders are not too different to athletes and other high performers. They are do-ers, take responsibility and focus on their strengths to achieve results. However they are not infallible; even superheroes have their flaws and ‘weaknesses’. It all feeds into the allure of the constant balancing act between power and mortality in the comic, and business, world.
To practice raising your Bat Signal, understand more about the kryptonite of your Supermen, or unveil and harness the hidden powers of your Peter Parkers (aka Spiderman) contact Gavin or Craig at the Business Olympian Group:
Article written by Emily Knowles, Associate.