This summer you can’t escape Superheroes. From the Avengers movie which is smashing all box office records to The Amazing Spider-Man (reboot) to The Dark Knight Rises (big screen’s 7th Batman actor so far) — not to mention Dredd (Judge Dredd reboot) and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – superheroes are saving the world in teams, with side-kicks, and alone on multiple, multiplex screens. Even Broadway in New York City is currently smitten with a superhero — Spider-Man — Turn Off the Dark.
Leadership and Power — there is no better example than Superheroes. According to J.W. Gardner (1990), Power is a social dimension; it is the capacity to ensure the outcomes one wishes and to prevent those one does not wish. Gardner (1990) also explains that Leadership and Power are two different things but are intertwined in many fascinating ways. The important questions are — What do you do with Power when you get it? How did you get the Power? How and when do you use it? Why do you use your Power — toward what ends?
Over the past 25 years, I have led many discussions about Leadership. Everyone has an idea of what Leadership is and what defines a Leader. Since I am more interested in engaging individuals I developed a highly interactive session. My goal is to give the participants an opportunity to think rather than be told what to think. I start the conversation about Leadership and Power with a simple yet important question —
Why Be a Leader?
What are the benefits? Why do individuals aspire, work, lobby, and fight to become the leaders of their groups or communities. Being the “Leader” is often not easy. Being the Leader means taking on responsibility, working harder than others, and not getting much recognition or praise. Being the Leader is often unfair. Leaders rarely get credit for the successes and almost always get blamed for the failures. In many cases, the Leaders are hated just because they’ve been given the title or position of authority. Take for instance the President of the United States. As soon as they win the election, they are hated and disrespected by a large portion of their constituents. Often even Superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man, Green Hornet, Blue Beetle and Green Arrow are misunderstood by the public they are serving and vilified in the media. So why would anyone want to be a Leader? What are the benefits and rewards? The audience thinks and begins to offer answers.
- Because I could do it better than everyone else
- To Make things better
- To have a say in what happens
- To control what is done
- To learn and grow personally and professionally
- To determine your own destiny
- To give back
- To serve others
- To make a difference
- Because no one else will
When the participants start running out of answers, I usually stop and tell them there are two answers they have missed. I also share that I am not surprised that neither of these answers have been mentioned yet — because for as long as I have been asking this question, these two answers rarely come up. They usually look at me dumbfounded. With a few more hints — they finally realize the two mysteriously missing answers to the question, Why Be a Leader? are: MONEY and POWER. In an academic or intellectual setting, it just isn’t appropriate to share that your goal in life is to be a Leader to get a better position with a better salary, incredible benefits and retirement plan. Emile Henry Gauvreay gives an insightful description of our attitude of Money today in this observation:
I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need to impress people they dislike.
Pursuing money as a benefit to being a Leader is not all bad unless it is your only motivation. After all we must live, support our families and feel that we are being compensated appropriately for our work and effort.
And POWER also has a very bad name — individuals in our discussion talked about “control,” “determining the destiny,” and “having a say” — but they won’t use the “P” word for fear of appearing greedy, corrupt and immoral. Power is typically used in a negative context thanks to powerful political leaders and powerful corporate CEO’s who have behaved badly. This quote from Lord Acton in an opinion piece from 1887 says it all:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
As for POWER, again, if it is the sole reason for being a Leader it will most likely bring trouble. But I would argue that POWER is actually quite necessary to make any positive change as a Leader. Without POWER what really can be accomplished? The key is how you use the power — for good or for evil.
Everyone is with the Justice League. Each member of the Justice League has great power. But unlike the Super Villains, Superheroes use their Power for good not evil. Another example — a bit more obscure — is the Disney movie, Sky High (2005). In looking at Power and Leadership, I love Sky High. The storyline in Sky High is similar to Harry Potter. This 14 year old finds out his parents are very famous Superheroes (The Commander and Jetstream), and he now must attend a special school for Super Heroes kids called Sky High. The first day of school, the gym teacher has all of the new kids gather in the gym and one at a time they have to show him their super power. Based on their demonstrated super power, the gym teacher identifies them as Superheroes, Villains, and Side-kicks. The concept of a side-kick I think is fascinating. The role is to support and complement the Superhero without ever being in the spotlight. I like this idea because I can definitely see myself more as a side-kick than a Superhero or Villain. Superheroes use their Power for Good — Villains for Evil.
Leaders typically have some degree of Power; but Power can exist without Leadership. The person who puts a parking ticket on your car’s windshield has Power but not the permission to lead. Parents have Power; School teachers have Power; Mid-managers have Power. Some have power because of their title and position — but they may not be Leaders. Others get Power because of more intrinsic reasons like their physical appearance and attractiveness, their leadership skills, or ability to persuade others (Gardner, 2003). Superheroes are not Leaders until they can harness and control their Power, understand how their Power may be used for Good, and must commit to using their Power only when necessary and always for the good of others.
Power is essential. If you read the essays by Robert K. Greenleaf (2002) about Servant Leadership — you see that he acknowledges that indeed little may be accomplished in a community without Power. A wonderful example of an individual whose means and ends were so admirable and so well respected that seeking Power is justified. The leader is Green Arrow who gained power and used the power to fight crime in his home town. Loki on the other hand used Power to an end that was horrifyingly destructive and despicable. The Justice League of America (JLA) and the Avengers are similar in that each Superhero and Villain acquired their super powers in different ways. Most gained their super powers because of an accident — like being blasted off their home planet (Superman, Wonder Woman), falling into a vat of toxic goo (The Joker, Poison Ivy), exposed to alien technology (Green Lantern, Blue Beetle, The Thing, Invisible Woman), being exposed to radiation (The Hulk, Captain America), being bitten by a bug (Spider-man), morphed with an animal (The Penguin, Beast Boy), struck by lightning (The Flash), using themselves as test subjects in an experiment that goes really wrong (Green Goblin). Others chose to find or create their power like the billionaires who have different identities by day (Ant-Man, Batman, Green Arrow, Iron Man, Wasp).
In Exploring Leadership, Komives et al (2003) affirm that Leaders must have the power to get results. Leaders though must be held accountable. Leaders also must be careful not to hoard power; hence their emphasis on Empowering as a key element of their Relational Leadership Model (Komives, 2008). Power can be indeed shared and amplified but Leaders should be hesitant to merely give it away (Gardner, 2003). Most of the time Superheroes act alone or with their sidekicks. But this summer with the wildly popular movie The Avengers, we see Superheroes needing to figure out how to work together. Like any group of Leaders who are put together in a team to focus on one task, they progress through a series of stages of group development (Tuckman, 1965). This is seen in the Avengers — and the success of the movie is that they eventually pass through the “storming” stage, begin to “norm” and ultimately “perform.” You even see some evidence of them saying goodbye or “adjourning” (Tuckman, 1977). During the performing stage you can see all of the Superheroes sharing power and in effect amplifying the overall power of the group — of Avengers, who defeated Loki and his alien army. And the DC folks are working on a Justice League of America movie; so, we’ll get a chance to see shared Power and Leadership among Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman soon in a theater near you.
Lastly, J.W. Gardner (2003) cautioned that Leaders must always be accountable. To avoid Leaders hoarding power or using Power for their own benefit, there must be a system of checks and balances. More importantly, Leaders who are given extraordinary Power must be able to use the Power well. As Spider-Man recalled from his last moments with his surrogate dad, Uncle Ben:
Whatever life holds in store for me, I will never forget these words:
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I’m Spider-man.
So next time someone asks you “Why Be a Leader?” — don’t be afraid to say for POWER. But don’t forget to explain that like Superman, Batman, Spider-man, and all of the Avengers — YOU will choose to use your POWER for Good not Evil.
- Gardner, John W. (1990). On Leadership. New York: The Free Press.
- Gardner, John W. (2003). Living, leading, and the American dream. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Greenleaf, Robert K. (2002). Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness – 25th Anniversary Edition. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
- Komives, Susan R., Lucas, Nance, & McMahon, Timothy R. (2007) 2nd Edition. Exploring Leadership for College Students Who Want to Make a Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
- Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Development sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.
- Tuckman, B.W. & Jensen, M.A.C. (1977) Stages of small group development revisited. Group and Organizational Studies, 2, 419-427.