What superheroes can teach us about leadership in business and beyond (feat. David Kahn, PhD)

Briefcase in superhero comic book style for article on leadership

We all know that superheroes mean big business these days … but, as Conrad Emmett finds out, it’s not just at the cinema. Today, he talks to expert David Kahn about how comic book characters can teach you valuable lessons in leadership.

David Kahn’s induction into the world of super-heroes-as-business-leaders didn’t involve him being bitten by a radioactive spider. It didn’t involve him being experimented on by the military and it certainly didn’t involve him climbing the Himalayas to learn magic powers.

But it sounds almost as arduous.

“I was leading a training session years ago,” he says as we settle into our interview. “I was bored out of my mind … and I was the trainer. I can only imagine how the people in the audience were feeling.

“So, just in the middle, I thought ‘I’ve gotta mix this up. I’ve gotta wake myself up. I’ve got to reinvigorate. I’ve got to re-engage.'”

David took a breath. And the words that would inspire his book, Cape, Spandex, Briefcase, just came out: “I asked the room ‘what makes Batman such a great leader?'”

It was a moment of truth for the man who has a PhD in leadership and education. One, perhaps, that lasted a beat longer than he had hoped. “The room got uncomfortable for a minute – they just didn’t know what to do with that question.

“And then, thankfully, one of the executives in the back of the room piped up and answered. And we did 45 minutes on what made Batman such a great leader. In the end we covered all the same content that I wanted to cover previously, but we did it in a more entertaining way.”

Training days

David Kahn

Batman’s unexpected appearance in that session helped David transform his training. “From then on I’ve tried to incorporate a bit more of that entertainment into the conversation,” he says. “It’s more engaging, it’s more interesting.”

He says pop culture plays an important part in adult learning: “I think that these days people need a level of practicality.

“They’re so inundated with information there has to be something they connect to and remember.” David’s been known to use anything relevant to his audience to achieve this goal – from Breaking Bad to The Holy Bible.

The consequence is a more positive relationship not just to the subject but to training itself. “They’re going to be able to use it more, and they’ll be more excited for the next opportunity to learn and train,” David says.

“Because when people walk into those situations with dread they’re already tuned out. You’ve got to work the first half of the training just to convince them they want to be there. So if you can skip that phase you’re ahead of the game.”

The power of myth

But, despite referencing a wide range of pop culture in his training, David thinks there is something special about superheroes.

He explains that superheroes have been around a lot longer than we might think. It’s just that they weren’t wearing capes.

“We’ve been talking about these heroes for hundreds of years,” he says. “Sure, Batman wasn’t around 200 years ago, but we had Sherlock Holmes. We had Robin Hood. We had King Arthur. Those were the superheroes of their day.

“And when you hear those stories you learn from them. You take lessons from them and you become a better person because of them. They’re not just for entertainment. They’re not just fun.”

And which superheroes stand out to him?

“Batman tends to be my favourite,” he says. “But when I’m teaching leadership I tend to use Captain America more than anyone else.

Why Cap? “He’s authentic, transparent. I think he models the behaviours he wants others to follow.

“There’s a confidence to him, and when he’s in a room with other superheroes they look to him for leadership. And it’s not because he stood up and said ‘I’m, the leader.’ It’s a quiet charisma.

“But he’s also capable. And he shares and he does all the things a strong leader needs to do, because leadership is not about a job title. It’s about your capabilities.”

The superpowers of leadership

So what lessons can we actually learn from these superheroes? In his book, Cape, Spandex, Briefcase, David outlines five core superpowers; rules which he says are consistent themes for any leader of any industry at any level.

The power of accountability

“Many people become leaders and never actually own the fact that they are a leader,” David says. “They understand that they have the job title and they understand that they have the responsibilities, but they haven’t accepted the fact they’re not the person they once were. They are now seen differently. They are treated differently. People are now looking at them in a different way. They are now modelling behaviours in a way that maybe they weren’t expected to do before. They’re making hard decisions they’ve never had to make, and they’re making unpopular decisions too.

“And if you don’t take ownership of your responsibilities then you try to become popular. Being popular becomes your driving motivation – instead of doing what needs to get done.”

The power of conviction

“Your values are determined by the goals you strive for and the manner by which you achieve them,” David says. “You have to be aware of where you want to go and how you want to get there.”

Essentially, you have to ask yourself what kind of person you are, ethically. “You have to know that before you go on your trek through leadership,” David says. “That way you keep sight of your ethical line.”

The power of persuasion

Influencing people to follow your vision is essential. “That’s what differentiates leaders from bosses,” David says. “A boss will just tell people what to do. A leader is persuading people to do it. And with that extra buy-in you get a higher quality of work. You get a higher quality of decision-making. You get people doing it because they believe in you and what you’re trying to achieve … and they want to achieve it too; because you have persuaded them it’s important and it matters.”

The power of competence

Talking a good talk is not enough. “There’s no substitute for being knowledgeable and skilled,” David says. “A leader needs background in what the company does and what the individuals in the company do. They need to know what the day-to-day pressures are for people. Without that you can’t persuade effectively and you can’t truly reach your vision.”

The power of collaboration

The era of the lone wolf is truly over. “The key to achieving a goal is to involve others,” David says. “That’s about building your alliances, building your team and making it feel like a team.”

And when you have all these powers, you have a dynamic leadership style.

“These powers work together,” David says. “When people are more accountable for what they want to accomplish, they’re more willing to collaborate.

“And then you create an army of leaders.

“And that’s the ultimate goal. If everyone can be a leader then your job is easier, because everyone wants to be successful in the same way, towards the same goal.”

When do you need help with leadership training?

In the business world, one common scenario is when people are asked to run before they can walk.

“Sometimes it’s people who get promoted before they’re ready,” David said. “They don’t have that competence. They don’t feel that level of accountability.

“Some people go years without these leadership skills, but they’re so stressed and they’re so inefficient. And they don’t have the full buy-in of their team because they haven’t built the power of collaboration. Or maybe they fail quickly and they never understand why because they never embrace the power of conviction. They don’t have that vision in place. They’ve waited for someone else to create it, and they’ve never been taught or told how to do it.”

So, what’s his advice? “The first step I would start with is the power of accountability You have to own what you’re doing. You have to own the role you’re in.

And, for some, this is a reality check. “Some people, once they fully try to grasp that accountability, realise ‘you know what? I don’t want to be a leader. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be. I never really aspired to doing this.’

“I often find that the best nurse becomes the nursing manager. And it’s such a different skill-set – they didn’t realise how different that skill-set was. And there wasn’t a lot of training to get them there.”

The benefits of good leadership

But for those who are happy to step forward, the rewards can be more than financial.

“It’s easy to look at material success, but for many people it’s not just their job,” David says. “It can be in the non-profit area; it can be in their church choir. These skills work no matter where you are.

“But as far as success goes, I see people feeling more fulfilled. I see people appreciating their progress, and I see people’s lives getting easier as they have empowered other people. Once they have that collaboration and they’ve built that leadership culture, their job is easier and they can do the things that need to get done.”

Days of Future Past

Right now – as well as his teaching, where he has scores of individuals and companies on his books – David is focusing his talents on his blog, LeaderSaysWhat.com

LeaderSaysWhat.com delivers the latest research in the field of management, and – like his talks – he infuses it with some pop-culture power.  “There’s so much amazing research out there that nobody’s reading or using, and it’s wasted information from brilliant people doing brilliant work. So I’m trying to put a spotlight on that to teach people what it is and and how they can use it.”

And then there’s the promise of another book to hit the marketplace based on David’s decades in leadership training and research. The angle this time? The only thing we know about it right now is it “will not be be superhero-based.”

But we can be guaranteed of one thing, however: it will be interesting.

Cape, Spandex, Briefcase can be found here.

Visit David’s blog, LeaderSaysWhat.com here.

Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published