What can we learn about leadership from superheroes and zombies?

I was at a writers’ conference a couple of weeks ago, and I happened to be at the luncheon table with a friend of Michael Ignacio Jr., who told me that Michael studies superheroes in a leadership context. And as you know, I love leadership and I think Michael has a very cool twist on things. The following is an excerpt from our interview. I hope you enjoy it, and learn something.

Don: Tell me about your background and what brought you to the topic of super heroes and leadership.

Michael: I love coming up with creative ideas in order to change the perceptions of how we see things. I used to work in higher education, and I wanted to come up with a way to combine my love of creativity with my academic development. The reason why I chose superheroes is because when I looked at superhero teams like the Justice League or the X-Men, they had dynamic that I felt could be compared to a work environment...for non-super heroes, that it is.

Don: What did you see in those teams that made you think that that was applicable to regular human work teams?

Michael: On a super hero team, I identify six archetypes that were relevant to the workplace. You always have a leader – someone who takes charge and tries to initiate things. You always have a mastermind of some sort, someone who is able to come up with plans and strategies. You have a powerhouse, people who are able to take on difficult tasks that other people on the team may not capable of doing. You have a face, someone who is really good at interacting with people and finding out information. You have specialists who are specialized in certain areas. .

Don: In the human work world, sometimes it’s not really clear who the leader is. Can give me an example of the leader from Justice League or X Men?

Michael: Interestingly enough, the Justice League has a rotating leadership, depending on the project.

You could also have people who are both the leader, as well as having some other role. The important thing is that team member voices are being heard, ideas are being shared, and direction is being given. The dynamics of the team is more important than who the leader is.

Don: How abut with X-Men?

Michael: You might say that Professor X is the leader, but I think either Storm or Cyclops is, depending on the team and mission. I would say that Professor X has great leadership skills, but he plays more of an executive sponsor role. He makes sure that they have what they need in order to be successful.

Don: One thing I have noticed and I’ve read in some of my research is that one of the most common ways for teams to fail is lack of clarity on the goal, and clarity on roles and responsibility. So, in the case of one of your super hero groups how is this rotating leadership communicated? How is it really well understood, because if it’s not understood it seems like that would cause problems?

Michael: I talk about that in my upcoming book, Supercharger Team. N such cases, a team needs to communicate very well in order to be effective. An example is the Justice League. Whenever they have meetings where they come and talk to one another, they make sure to let everyone know all aspects about the situation and the plan. Even if they some members already know, like for example Aquaman may already know about who is polluting his ocean. Batman and the Green Lantern might still want to let everyone else know, and explain all the details they know, so everyone is on the same page.

Don: I’ve seen cases where egos make it very difficult for the teams to work together. I can only imagine that among teams of superheroes that’s got to be even a bigger challenge. Have you seen that?

Michael: I have not seen it any worse in super heroes than in humans. Our egos can be just as big.

Don: So, have you been able to apply some of the lessons that you learned from the superhero paradigm to a team that you worked on?

Michael: One of the lessons that I had to learn was that you need the right people on the team. If someone is not a good fit, they have to go.

Don: I’m a big Jim Collins fan. And in his book Good to Great he talks about getting the right people on the bus as the number one thing in having a great team. Have there been super hero teams where they had to get rid of somebody because they didn’t have the right people on the bus?

Michael: There was a character in the Justice League called the Huntress. I remember this from the cartoon shows when I was growing up. She was sort of a violent vigilante, who didn’t always adhere to the Justice League’s ethics. She was removed from the team because of this.

Don: It’s really amazing how one person who doesn’t share either the common goal, the style, or doesn’t fit the culture can really screw up a team.

Michael: I had to remove someone from my Kapuha Press team, because they were not a good fit for the actual company. That was a tough challenge, because I didn’t want to let someone go, but that’s ultimately what happened. It was a good lesson. I’m now able to recognize when someone isn’t right for the team, and I avoid hiring them.

Don: How about a leader that you personally admire.

Michael: Lando Calrissian, from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The reason why I chose him was everyone gives Lando a lot of grief because he betrayed Han Solo to the empire, but from an ethical standpoint he actually had to do it, because he was in an administrator role. He was the administrator over the Cloud City Bespin facility. And a lot of people really relied on him for leadership, safety and security. So, he actually had to make a difficult decision was because he really had an ethical and moral responsibility to the employees that were employed under him to serve them the best way he could rather than help his friend.

Don: Yes, those are hard times to be a leader, when you have to make difficult decisions that affect other people’s lives. That’s the crucible that determines your long-term success. I was in the tech industry, so I’ve had the misfortune of having to give a lot of people their pink slips when the company was going through tough times. No one ever wants to do that, but you have to make tough decisions sometimes. It’s been my experience that if you take the broadest perspective, and not your own perspective, or that of Joe or Bill or Bob…If you really try to do the best for the global being, than in the end, people continue to trust you to lead them.

Michael: I also have noticed that when I’m put in difficult situations like that, the very first time that you have to do it, it’s super uncomfortable. But the more you do it, the more confident you become. No one enjoys firing people, but you become more adept at handling those situations, and learn how to handle in the most professional way.

Don: So, the leader that you chose, Lando. So what is his super power?

Michael: Actually, he doesn’t really have a super power, but his strengths is that he’s very charismatic. And he has a lot of courage. The background of Lando is that he was a gambler and a smuggler way back in the Star Wars history. Because of this, he is able to have the grit to handle difficult decisions.

Don: As I was preparing for this interview, I got thinking about this how superheroes are an exaggeration of all of us humans. All of us have our own little mini super power or strength, and our kryptonite or challenge. And For instance, I know my own super power is my optimism. My wife and I will be out climbing and it’ll start raining. She’ll say, “Oh, it’s raining.” I’ll say, “The heavy stuff isn’t coming down for a while yet. We’ve got time to do one more climb.”

My kryptonite is boredom. I hate boredom. What would your super power and your kryptonite be?

Michael: I’m really good at that and I also have a lot of professional fortitude. I’m really good at digging in and I have a lot of tenacity. I don’t give up, some people might call that stubborn but I work really, really hard and I try to do my very, very best.

My kryptonite would be that I have so many ideas and so much passion that sometimes I have to take a step back and realize, “Okay, I need to actually process what I’m doing,” rather than just rush and start acting on the ideas.

Don: In a past conversation, you mentioned a little bit about zombies and leadership. And I am a huge Walking Dead fan. I’m crazy about that show. Can you tell me what you learned about zombies and leadership?

Michael: There is a great book by Scott Kenemore, titled Zen of Zombie.

Zombies have great goal orientation, and they also have great transparency. Zombies want brains or flesh, and that is a metaphor for their goals. They’re not deterred. They aren’t afraid. They’re not egocentric. They do whatever they can regardless of how long it takes to move towards their goal, which is fantastic. I think a lot of professionals in the industry could benefit from having a lot more fortitude in terms of not necessarily being the immediate gratification, but saying, “Okay, I’m going to be patient. I’m going to work hard. I’m always going to keep on moving towards my goal even if it’s a single step at a time.

Don: So, work like a zombie?

Michael: Yes. More or less. In regards to transparency, when you see a zombie you know exactly what’s about to go down. They don’t do anything they’re not supposed to. They don’t do anything out of character.

Don: That’s interesting like the not being deterred. Certainly, they just keep going and keep going and keep going until their head is punctured or something. Although, their negotiating tactics leave something to be desired.

Michael: I think it’s all a matter of perspective, in terms of negotiation, zombies are great at attrition. They’re going to wait you out until you’re like, “Okay fine, I’m going to do whatever it is to make this go forward.” Like for example if you have humans in a building and they’re like, “Huh, we’re safe in this building.” The zombie is not going to be like, “Oh no, the humans are in the building I can’t get them.” They’re going to be like, “Okay, this is wonderful. This is an opportunity. Let’s surround the building until they make a mistake.”

Don: I think one of my challenges as a leader is that I tend to be not only an optimist, but also a diplomat. There are times when that works, but there are times when it doesn’t. I read something the other day where someone said that they’ve never seen a lion go up to a gazelle and ask for permission to attack it, that there are situations where you just have to go for what you need. I think that’s been a personality challenge for me in some of my leadership. There are just some times when hey, you got to take it as the zombies  and the lions do, right?

Michael: That’s one of my challenges, knowing when it’s appropriate to be assertive versus trying to be patient. And so I can definitely understand that.

Don: So, we talked about the zombies. Now what have you done with that? Have you taken any of those lessons and been able to put any of those into use?

Michael: I apply those in my own professional and personal life in trying to have the fortitude to endure whatever challenges I encounter. I try and keep calm.

Don: When I think about leadership I always think there are two kinds of leadership. There’s what I call personal leadership, which is leading yourself, and then there’s people leadership which is leading others. And you told me about Kapuha Press that you started. Tell us about Kapuha Press, what it is, how it came about and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Michael: Several years ago, I was trying to become a traditionally published author. I had these great stories, but when I tried sending them off to traditional publishers or agents, I would constantly get, “No, I’m sorry. This isn’t what we’re looking for.” It’s really disheartening.

So, I began looking into self publishing. It was pretty easy to get a story self-published. I realized that I could help other people as well.

Don:  I’m kind of hoping that this has been interesting for the people who are going to come across this blog post. And people may want to read a little bit more about what you’re doing and see more of your thoughts on your super heroes or zombies in leadership, or Kapuha Press. Where can people find out more about what you’re up to?

Michael: All of that information is on www.kapuhapressllc.com.

Don: I really appreciate you talking to me today and telling us a little bit about your thoughts, and helping us to understand how some of the paradigms of superheros and zombies, can help us to understand how to be better leaders. So, thank you so much.

Michael: Thank you very much for this opportunity. It was a pleasure to talk with you.