What Batman Can Teach Us

You know who totally gets collaboration? Batman. He didn’t do the world-saving-things himself; he understood the power of a Robin and an Alfred and he collaborated well with the police. He got collaboration. And I think it made him more powerful. As I get ready for a talk on power thru collaboration on Saturday, I’ve been studying the issue. Really. I studied Wonder Woman some more. Then I watched Batman Again.

7 things Batman can teach each of us:

Believe in something. Superman wanted to save planet earth, Spiderman wanted to rid injustice, and Batman wanted to save the world from its own fear. Just like them, when we mere humans have an amazing mission in something, we can pursue that thing until the cows come home because we can’t imagine not working on it. We care because we see it as broken or wrong. We care because we can imagine a world better for it. It’s embodied in the people who attend TED. For example, I have a mission to change how companies and people work. I want to help companies to win markets by moving from a command and control approach that suppresses the human spirit to creating workplaces where the human being can be fully alive/creative/engaged. I know it creates better business outcomes. I believe in that something, and will keep pursuing regardless of how rough the road ahead lies. And I will get better at sharing my mission to help get many people engaged in the endeavor. You see, believing in something clearly and articulating it lets other people get behind the mission. It’s what Derek Sivers described in the video where the “2nd dancer made the first lunatic a leader”. (http://bit.ly/dd9gsA).

Get the right tools. For superheroes, it might be cuffs that can repel bullets, or the mighty lasso that revealed all truth. And for us mortals at work, it is our knowledge, our education, our experiences that help us build up our toolset. We cannot have power without having the ability to think, to take in new ideas, to develop new insights, to create new outcomes. Notice that I did not point out rank or title as the key to the right tools. While those can be helpful, they are not necessary to creating great power. And in some ways, they get in the way of generating value. That’s what great tools should do — help us to create more value and pursue our mission.

Get good sidekicks.Batman had Robin and Alfred, and in doing so, he got people who worked with him to create change. Robin did major work, and Alfred got the cool tools ordered. Having the right people on our teams always matters because it is when many people work together they can create more momentum towards a goal. Plus, of course, it can be fun to work with other smart and creative people. We live in an era of creative work. Unlike the era of production where we produced cars and we valued physical power or the era of information where we valued mental powers and produced computing chips. We live in the era of creative work where we what we produce is often a product of co-creation and uses emotional power in that effort.

Don the cape. The difference between the Superheroes and the wanna-be-superheroes lies in this one key thing. At some point, we gotta put on the cape. We gotta decide that we will take on the tough task that no one wants to take on, to go where no one else wants to go, to seek out new opportunities. You gotta don the cape. You’ve gotta decide you want power, that you will use it well, and that you will engage the tough issues. Don the cape says that you choose to lead or to win. You cannot be a superhero without this step. I call this in The New How“stepping up”. Without each of us stepping up, collaboration never happens. Without each of us choosing to change how things work, it’ll always be the same. We gotta don the cape and decide that we will engage.

When Superheroes do these 4 things — they have power. Now the question is what do they do with it? You might guess by my thesis that “How” is going to matter a lot in this story. Most Superheroes face tough foes. In the case of Batman, he faced some seriously psycho characters, wanting to tear apart the city of Gotham. While most of us won’t face psychopaths, but we will face people who don’t agree with us.

Handle Adversity:We will face people who have their own beliefs, tools and approaches and they want something different than you. Does that make them wrong, and you right? Or does it create an opportunity to co-create an outcome that you might not yet imagine. I believe the latter.

I personally didn’t handle my biggest moment of adversity well. Let me share that story as an example of how power can be used poorly. When I was working at a big company, I had this role where I was responsible for a relatively big part of a business. I had a lot of people reporting to me, and I owned a revenue # for a $40M business line plus I had indirect responsibility for an even bigger $300M revenue line. Someone who didn’t report to me has an opinion for how to do marketing for a business line and I disagreed with her. At first, I tried to talk with her, and she viewed that as meddling in her business. Then I challenged her in meetings which caused her to think I was trying to push her around. And all the while we were no longer engaging the real issue of the business; it had become personal.

Now what makes this story sad is that this was one of my best friends. I had run marathons with her. I had gotten up at 5:00am to do 20 mile long runs with her. We shopped and laughed and dated together. She had cheered me on as I finished the Cal International Marathon. I loved her. But I wasn’t willing to give up my position in being right.

Being right mattered more to me at that point, than being loyal to our friendship. So after a while, our disagreement grew in scale as the budgets needed to be signed off by higher-ups and so more people knew of our disagreement. It went all the way to the executive staff of the Americas division to discuss the differences and ultimately have someone rule what the decision would be. I was completely willing to take down my “opponent” to win the argument. I treated this colleague like an archenemy.

Good choice? Not so much. I failed the test of how to handle adversity because I believed it was about winning on the topic. What I didn’t realize then, and I hope I am sharing the right lesson with you is that I might have got the “what” right in terms of the marketing strategy but I got the “how” wrong in building trust amongst a colleague. She never wanted to work with me again, and I had lost the trust of others in my workplace because they knew (and rightly so) that I would walk on them to get my way more than I would work with them to get a new way. I got fired, we never spoke again. I might have won the battle but I didn’t live to win the war. And if we handle adversity as if the other person is the archenemy, we miss the opportunity to go past the 1 win to score many wins.

Which brings me to another lesson that SuperHeroes can lend us.

Know your Weaknesses. We all have achilles heels. It could be physical, mental or emotional. Superman’s weakness was Kryptonite. It was physical. And he really couldn’t’ escape this weakness of his. Mine can be binaryism— to see an answer and think it is the only answer. That is clearly a mental weakness. We all have weaknesses, and that is okay. A friend of mine’s sister was brutally attacked as a girl and so my friend has PTSD and therefore little things can get in the way of her functioning. If we manages her stress level well, she doesn’t get triggered and no one knows how she carries this issue. That’s an example of emotional weakness.  Whatever that is for you, it’s okay to have it. You just need to know you have it. And to know it is to also accept it. Because I know mine and have to befriend it, I can see when I’m doing it and therefore manage around it.

Which brings me to my final lesson from Superheroes:

Take off the Mask. Superheroes are on call for doing a lot, and it can be awfully in demand. After all, lots of things need fixing and we need superheroes to help. They need to work hard. But there are times when they need to also restore. Superheroes have masks so that sometimes they can take it off. And so we humans can also learn that lesson. We can realize that we need some downtime. A time when we are vulnerable. We need to retreat to our batcave where our loved ones know us by our real, and likely messy identity. Where they love us not for what we do, but for who we are. I suspect it would be very easy for the superhero to believe they were the character they played rather than the human that they are. We play characters in life also. Mom, CEO, Director, Leader — but those are characters in our life — roles we play. But they are not us. And so we have to have safe bat caves where we can come to rest and take off our masks and just be. It’s how we’ll have the energy to do our mission another day.

Power comes from our belief in a mission, getting the tools, people for the cause, then doning the cape. Wisdom in power comes from how we handle adversity in our role, accept our weaknesses, and knowing when to take off the mask. These are simple concepts yet complex in application. Both ordinary and ancient in principle.


(If you’d like to see a talk on this topic, it’s in this post: http://nilofermerchant.com/2010/06/15/superheroes-r-us/)

8 Replies

  1. Nilofer, this is great. A couple of things it made me want to share. First, Michael Chabon’s incredible novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two Jewish boys (cousins) who invent some of America’s greatest super heroes in comics. Second, a new film called Kick Ass.Chabon’s book is fascinating for many reasons, including its great imaginativeness and the cleverness of the writing, but what blew me away was the social history of the comic book hero. These figures were mythological expressions of their creator’s aspirations to rise above their weakness, frailty and the injustices that constrained them. The long and short is that I think there is agreement in Chabon’s novel on many of the principles you lay out here.This new flick, Kick Ass, looks like a particularly good demonstration of “stepping up” and handling adversity, but I suspect it may touch some of you other points and concerns as well. Plus, geeks becoming superheroes: what’s not to love about that? Isn’t that a perfect fable for innovators? http://www.kickass-themovie.com/

  2. Superheroes really are the ones who rise above their weakness, their past, injustices not because it’s easy but because it’s necessary. What the world needs now is each of us to do the same act of heroism.

  3. Brilliantly written. I think the biggest problem we as individuals face is that we don’t wanna be superheroes. We are happy in fulfilling little desires of our day-to-day lives. I have never met anyone who came and said to me that he/she wants to be a Millionaire. Everyone jokes about being one …but no one says it seriously. Even if someone does, hardly do they take any action that might help them becoming one. Anyhow I guess that’s why there were a few super heroes and not millions. I liked how you elaborated on each and every lesson that one can take from a Super hero and also in sharing your personal story. I particularly thought about that incident of yours and I think being Goal oriented can help cope up with situations like that. If one always keep in mind what their end goal is, it really helps coping up with distractions and indulgence in confrontations. Well I am starting to work on every aspect from now on, cos I love Superheroes 🙂

  4. Vik – as i’ve been asking people this question about power (what gives you power), i’ve had this weird response to the notion of power itself. It’s like a Rorschach test — some people view it as part and parcel to evil, some think it doesn’t apply to them and some view it positively. From my rough sampling, i propose that how we view power falls along a standard distribution curve with the vast majority in the middle not believing it applies to us. But i believe power is inherent in all of us — in all we do — in all we create. Whether we choose to recognize it, harness it or use it — that’s all a matter of courage.

  5. Batman: What an arresting example of power! Great posts. Look forward to your talk.Yes, each of us have power within us, some of us have gifts that were nurtured and thrived. We use our power to inspire changes, to teach and to make a difference. Some misuse their power and sadly, some don’t even know they have any. Power and Leadership often go together but not always. I think, today, a truly great leader has not only positional power, but power from having great followers, being one of the collaborators and his/her authentic and integrated self, as well as, having real humanity, charisma and humility. Realistic? Thoughts??

  6. Nilofer- I never thought about what gives me power. I think it’s the very sense of achieving something and getting things finished that motivates me. I think that motivation is the source of power. I am highly goal-oriented too, so i try to do everything possible(ethically) to achieve my goal and that somewhere includes that power aspect or the ability to influence someone. Another very important factor that I would held responsible is spirituality. Also i agree with you that vast majority of people do not believe that power applies to them. Matter of fact it is applicable to each and every individual but only a few understand power and use it.

  7. Robin saved Batman’s butt many times. Every super hero needs a Robin and an Alfred. You really captured leadership and teamwork with this metaphor. Being an avid comic book fan and a leader @mojointeractive, I can relate. Batman was never at his best when he went it alone, and as a business leader, we are never at our best when we aren’t in collaboration mode.

Leave a reply

Leave a Reply