Monday, October 12, 2009

Superhero Leadership! Part 1!

Okay, so of course we don’t (sadly) live in a world full of caped heroes, but for the fun of it, let’s suppose we did. Would we consider them “leaders” by any sort of standard definition or theory? Now of course, superheroes come in all shapes and sizes so I’m going to take two take two iconic superheroes and evaluate them: Superman and Batman. This blog will focus solely on Superman, and in two weeks, in true comic form, you’ll get the stunning conclusion when we look at Batman and compare the two.

Let’s start with the Man of Steel. Well, even his motto: “Standing for truth, justice and the American way!” sounds an awful lot like the transformation leadership that Burns champions when he says it is “more concerned with end values, such as liberty, justice and equality” (1978). Burns also talks deeply about the moral standards of the leader, and many a-times Lux Luthor has cited Superman as his “incorruptible foe”.

Sticking with values, we could then move to Heifitz (1998), who makes a lot of his basis of whether or not a person is a leader based upon whether they are good or evil. Surely, saving people from burning buildings, foiling robberies and rescuing tree-stranded cats are the deeds of a moral person, yes? Well…then there’s a problem. Heifitz doesn’t really subscribe to trait theory, or great man theory. If there ever was a “great man” I’m pretty sure Superman would take the cake- and would Heifitz care that it’s Superman traits, his special abilities to fly and see through walls, which gives him the ability to perform those moral deeds? Does this disqualify him?

But what about those traits, those special gifts? Well, he’s certainly got all kinds power. Hughes (1993) would say he’s got both coercive power and referent power as a result. You could even argue that those powers automatically put Superman in a situation of leadership, due to his ability to act, and is therefore a leader because of it (Stogdill, 1948).

But if Superman is defined as a leader because of these powers, then who are his followers? Geneen (1998) would ask: Who is Superman managing? Rost (1991) would then pipe in: There’s no relationship between followers and Superman, therefore he’s not a leader! It begs the question of can there be true leadership if there aren’t defined followers (especially it’s a bit of a impossibility given the unnatural gap in ability), or even a true goal? To that end Selznick (1975) might claim Superman’s leadership is automatically default because there’s not a clear mission for Superman- he just continually keeps helping people when needed. Are those specific enough “goals”?

There are a lot of questions I’ve asked, and I’m curious for the answers you might have. Like I said, this is Part 1. Part 2 will focus on Batman since he’s a mortal character, and is less “revered” by the public, being often called a vigilante. Til next time!


  1. Interesting post! This reminds me of Nietzsche’s Superman leader theory. In short, Nietzsche claimed that the world was in chaos and in need for a superman (or “Ubermensch,” a leader of great strength) to destroy human weakness and impact positive change. He claimed the human population was divided between average beings -“beast and superbeast”- and higher beings -“inhuman and superhuman.” In terms of this “superman,” Nietzsche claimed he has overcome the weakness of humanity & was self-directed rather than “other-directed.” In contrast to Burn’s concept of a transformational leader, the Superman determines his own values independently. This seems to share similarities with Machiavelli’s concept of leadership.

  2. Great post! I am immediately drawn to comment concerning Superman's goals and how that influences his leadership. I think that Selznick would see Superman as a leader because he is performing a "kind of work to meet the needs of a social situation". I mentioned this theory in my previous blog comment, but I think it is even more applicable to this blog. Whether Superman wakes up that day and knows exactly what situation will come before him or not, he still works and rises to the occasion when the need is recognized.

    I think the question of followers is interesting. We have discussed that someone can still be a leader even if they don't have clearly defined followers - like in "thought leadership". Maybe Superman is a little bit the same way. He is not managing a clearly defined group of people but instead impacting everyone he encounters while striving to live by his motto: “Standing for truth, justice and the American way!”

  3. I think it's interesting talking about trait theory here--yes, he definitely has certain traits and powers that give him the ability to successfully do his job. But in a class discussion, we talked about leadership as how you use your traits. If you look at every super villain or enemy that Superman has (or any superhero has) we could probably find many similar traits--power, charisma, etc. My question is does a leader have to be good or evil? Can a bad person be a great leader--like Hitler or any super villain--or is part of "great leadership" working for the greater good?

    A big problem with trait theory is that one can have certain traits that "qualify" them to be good leaders, but if they don't act on those traits, I would argue that they are not leaders. How would we look at Superman if he had all this ability, yet lived a normal, quiet life? Trait theory clearly cannot stand alone.

  4. All- thanks very much for your feedback! I very much appreciate it :)

    @Kristen - This is an interesting thought. It's never really clear WHY Superman chooses to do the things he does. Why has he chosen a life of "good" rather than "evil"? Is it luck that he's decided to affect a positive change rather than a negative one?

    @Allison- I think you're on to something with the followers. After reading what you wrote, I thought a little bit about politicians. There's a more "direct" interaction in that people vote for them, but once they are in office, we don't really "follow" them anymore since we're disconnected from them. I'm jumping ahead a bit into my Batman posting, yet to come, but "the mob" usually clamors for Superman. They aren't really indifferent, they are supportive to the best of their abilities. Maybe this is how they are "followers"?

    @Meghan - You're very much right on about not using your abilities for some action. I would agree with you that part of leadership is definitely about choice- choosing to use your ability. On your second point I might disagree ;). Whether or not it is for "good" or for "evil" I believe might need to be taken out of the equation. The reason I say this is because even though we "inherently" understand as a culture good an evil, it's not easy to define. There are many people who would have argued that Hitler was NOT evil, from their point-of-view. So in this case I think we must look at the results of leadership, what was the person able to do, and take away the moral side of it- only because it can be so biased.

    Thanks all for the discussion!

  5. I love this idea of superhero leaders. I think you posed some great thoughts, particular with regards to can there be a leader with no followers mobilizing towards a common goal?? It's a really interesting point that I am not sure the answer to.

    I think that I would consider an entity such as Superman to be a leader, because he possesses traits and characteristics that I myself not only don't have, but will never attain. Thus, his inability to attain goals out of my reach give him much referent and expert power.

    More apparent though is his display of what Selznick refers to as "opportunism" and the striving to meet goals for survival. While we spoke of this in a negative respect, in this unusual circumstance, the typical consequences are the lack of influence from external factors. Because of the inability of most individuals to reach the potential power of a person like superman, such a consequence is irrelvant.

    Finally, in response to Meghan's comment about the place of good and evil, I would argue again with Sashkan as he talks about the role of "authentic leader" and that the motives DO because both the leader and the supposed followers must both produce INTEGRITY. Lacking integrity, is lacking authentic leadership and promoting a more personalized leadership attitude. I would argue that while the results may be the same, the effectiveness of the type of leader has a much smaller lifespan.

    Thanks again for the great great great post!

  6. Christopher, very interesting post as everyone has commented! At first glance, I had the impression of Superman as a servant-leader--jumping to it to save the day for whoever is in need from the Sendjaya, et. al (2002) readings for this week. I also thought about the charismatic nature (at least in my mind...but maybe it's his muscles in that suit!) of Superman which is also addressed by this theorist. The authors cite Max Weber as having "supernatural and superhuman" qualities that match the notion of charisma.

    What sets servant leadership apart from charismatic leadership is serving those on the social margins. I don't see Superman serving just these folks, so I guess this disqualifies him from servant leadership.

    Can't wait for Part 2!


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