Monday, October 26, 2009

Superhero Leadership! Part 2: The Stunning Conclusion!

Welcome back! Last time we explored the idea of whether or not Superman, a person of superhuman abilities who fights evil for the cause of “good” is a leader or not. But Superman is an alien, a being not of this Earth, and almost incomparable to us mere mortals. Batman, however is not. So let’s look at the Caped Crusader a little closer to see if he would constituent a leader, both as a stand-alone entity and when compared to Superman. We’ll then wrap this whole thing with my person opinions on the matter.

So, Batman is a dark brooding billionaire who has turned to doling out his own justice under the cover of night. Zaleznik would probably have a field day when looking at Batman. Zaleznik (1977) would say no one is more “twice-born” and had to struggle through life (at least emotionally), than Bruce Wayne who watched his parents be brutally murdered. This one action led Wayne to eventually take up his mission of exacting revenge on those who break the law. But even further, Zaleznick could check off many of his items from his definition of leadership: Thinks outside the box? Neurotic? (Pro)active? Well, I mean the guy IS dressed up like a bat who beats up bad guys, I think neurotic may even be light in this case. Rich emotional content? Wayne consistent grieves over his parents. Intense one-to-one relationships? Mm, that may be a stretch, but he certainly loves his butler, Alfred.

But what about empathy, one of Zaleznick’s, and many others’ requirement for leadership? I think Choi (2006) would say Superman is pretty empathetic, because Superman usually looks for people in danger, and protects them. But Batman is different here- Batman hunts bad guys. You’ll never see the Caped Crusader running into a burning building, or saving a cat from a tree (however humorous the latter would look), so it’s a different relationship to the world of good and evil. Superman protects, Batman punishes, and therefore I don’t think empathy is here.

Let’s expand on that punishment a little bit. As mentioned in the last article about power, Hughes’ coercive power (1993) is clearly here, given the fear Batman evokes, but Superman has both coercive AND reward power. Batman only uses one. Is that enough for a leader, especially if it’s coercive? This leads us a little bit into a values question. While certainly Batman believes he is a “do-gooder”, it would be easy for someone like Burns (1978) or Heifitz (1998) to perhaps have some pause at calling Batman a leader, due to a nebulous morality surrounding his methods. Batman typically beats his opponents to a pulp, without any regarding to due process. He is judge, jury and executioner all in one. Is this really a leader?

And why does Batman do these things? Is it really for the good of others, or is it for HIS need, a need to battle demons created when he was unable to prevent his parents’ death? Sendjaya (2002) would probably raise an eyebrow at this, claiming that if Batman is viewed as a leader at all, don’t confuse him as a servant-leader, since his actions are not clearly altruistic in nature. Superman, on the other hand, may fall into this category, given there is no real motivation for Superman’s actions other than a choice he is making to use his powers for good. Superman receives no benefit or reward for his deeds, and that sounds pretty altruistic to me.

Batman’s response to these criticisms may cause him to cite a little McGregor (1966), saying that his actions are the result of a situation. The situation in this case is that Batman lives in Gotham, a city filled to the brim with crime, and a corrupt police force unable to do anything about it. He’d claim this is also in-line with Selznick’s (1975) idea that leadership is done to “meet the needs of a social situation”. The people of Gotham have a need for someone to clean up the streets, and Batman is filling that need. Also, Batman also has said (whether he means or not is in question), that he would go away when he is “no longer needed”. Selnick would like this dispensable leadership idea, and he’d also enjoy the fact that Batman has no “given power”.

Finally, just as we asked the question with Superman, we must the same of Batman: who is following him? This comes from the questions of Geneen (1998) and Rost (1991). I’ll answer with my idea about Superman first- the people of Metropolis follow him. They do this by having a fairly universal positive public opinion of him. Superman is beloved and championed. This is similar to how people support those holding public office, or even on a sports team. People may not be able to DIRECTLY “follow”, in the clearest sense of the word but they do they best they can through the power of collective voice.

Batman however isn’t “followed” by the public. He’s not seen as a universal hero. To many, he’s a criminal, just as bad as the ones he punishes. He circumvents the judicial system, and by taking matters into his own hands, he’s a vigilante, not a savior. Cronin (1984) says that leadership is more about means than ends. Batman’s means, however well-intentioned, and despite whatever positive results MAY come from them, are flatly against the law.

So where does this leave us? I’ll keep it simple. I think that Superman is a leader, and Batman is not. Superman exhibits a clear, positive mission, is empathetic, and even has followers. He could even be called an inspirational leader, perhaps. Batman on the other hand, is a deviant. A person who takes matters into their own hands, illegally, however well-intentioned, is not (usually)* leadership. Batman has no followers, has no empathy, and is working to serve really only himself, even if his actions may benefit others. I still like him though ;).

I’ll be anxious to hear your thoughts!

* - I understand that certain times in history people perform actions that are “illegal” (i.e. Gandhi, the Revolutionary War) that DO constitute leadership. There’s just too much to go into with that for this post.


  1. How does the fact that both Batman and Superman operate under secret identities affect their position as leaders? Can you really be a leader if your followers do not know who you are? It brings me back around to the fact that they are both heros or saviors for followers but have no impact on the lives of their followers outside of a short-term (usually minutes) crisis situation and have no relationship with their followers because they save them and leave without revealing their true identity. I have a hard time calling them leaders.

  2. Ann Candler-

    That's an interesting comment. I think the "true identity" is the facet I'm most interested in. Clark Kent, I'd argue, is NOT the "true" identity. Kent is a disguise, and Superman is who he really is, to me at least. To be honest, I'm not even sure I know why the Kent persona exists- I believe only to allow him to interact with Lois Lane in a "normal" setting, but that's a whole other can of worms.

    Batman is trickier...but is it different? "Batman" is an identity, to be sure. The "true" one...I don't know, but I'm not sure it's definitely a "no". I think the argument could be made that Bruce Wayne is also just a facade.

    As for the short-term crises, this definitely applies for Batman. He foils robberies, he stops muggings, etc. Once again, I think this may be tougher with Supes. The Man of Steel is often times "saving the world" from global annihilation. Granted, he performs the random act of kindness as well...but sometimes it IS a long-term impact, if you consider keeping the world safe from dastardly world domination long term ;).

    But seriously- excellent, excellent points. Thanks!

  3. Ann Candler--
    I also agree with your comments, and wonder not only "can followers follow a leader who they do not know?" but also are there even followers at all in this situation? I think you can admire someone or something but not necessarily follow their lead. Especially in this case, a superhero has traits that the normal person cannot mimic. I can learn a lot from Superman or Batman, but I can probably never learn all of their traits, whereas it seems more reasonable that I might learn some of my boss's qualities. And isn't great leadership all about enabling growth and learning among your followers? That seems very limited in this context.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Meghan-

    That's a very interesting thought, the mimicking ability. But let's take a leader like Martin Luther King. He led through raising awareness, through education, through mobilization. His leadership I believe, comes from his ability to inspire people to draw them to action, and that action was a way of life.

    You're right, people can't even leap tall buildings in a simple bound, but what if Superman's actions inspired people to just simply be good? Isn't his message, "use your talents, whatever they may be, for the good of the world"? His talents may be superpowers, but isn't it a model "normal" people could emulate or mimic- do good when you can, with the gifts that you have?

  5. I had been waiting anxiously for Part 2 of your post, so thank you! After reading your first post about Superman, I had trouble viewing him as a leader since he doesn't seem to influence his followers into any sort of action. I had started thinking about Batman and decided he might be a leader because he wants to promote justice, but wanted to read your post to really form my opinion on that one. Now that I've read what you wrote, I realized that although Batman wants justice, he isn't really promoting it to anyone. You are right: he takes matters into his own hands because of his own personal agenda. He isn't setting an agenda for anyone else. I think earlier versions of Batman (the old TV show with "bam" "pow" on the screen) and maybe some cartoons for kids would protray batman as more of a leader. However, the most recent movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, really portray Batman in a more negative light as far as influence and leadership. I agree, he and his movies are awesome though.

    It's too bad you don't have another post to write because I would really like read about another superhero...I was thinking Captain Planet might be a truly great leader!


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