We are living in the age of the superhero. They dominate movie theaters, they are on TV, and (allegedly) in our boardrooms. The superheroes in the movies and on TV protect us from villains and help save the world. The superheroes in the boardroom (allegedly) teach us about leadership, or design, or any one of the other things we are supposed to learn from superhero CEOs and founders.
Like Steve Jobs.
Or, before him, GE's Jack Welch.
Our culture likes to anoint superheroes and identify leaders who supposedly have all of the answers. And, if they have rough edges, like Jobs and Welch did, all the better.
After all, Batman is more popular than Superman, and Batman is all rough edges.
Except, CEOs and founders are not superheroes. No one else is either. That's hard for me to admit, given that I have a Batman tattoo on my right arm and I learned to read using Batman: Year One, but it's true.
Batman is tenacious, intelligent, and has an unquestioned sense of honor and integrity. Everyone - not just founders, CEOs, and corporate leaders - should aspire to those qualities. However, Batman is also aided by a billion dollar fortune and an oblivious police force.
(Seriously, how has the Gotham Police not figured out that the billionaire with the obvious motive of murdered parents is Batman?)
Batman is also aided by the fact that he is fictional. He has visited other planets, other realms, and other dimensions. He has traveled through time and faced Jack the Ripper, Dracula, and Ayatollah Khomeini. And, as a longtime reader of Batman comics, I can tell you that ultimately the Dark Knight always wins.
But that isn't real life. The idea that any one individual has the capability to succeed in any field and overcome every obstacle due to an uncommon set of personal attributes is just not true.
If anyone doubts that all they have to do is watch basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal's 1996 film Kazaam and it's 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Or listen to one of Eddie Murphy's albums.
Or read about Herbert Hoover. Prior to becoming President, Hoover was one of the most praised and written about executives and "thought leaders" of his time, yet his disastrous support of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act helped make the Great Depression far worse than it would have been.
There are countless examples of celebrated individuals who were the hero in one field only to become the villain in another. Yet we continue to believe that there are leaders who will succeed regardless of context because of a set of personal attributes.
Recent research shows that leadership is contextual. What makes someone a superhero in Gotham might not work - in fact, it probably won't work - in Metropolis.
What makes someone good at selling soda is not the same set of skills that makes someone good at selling computers.
And what makes someone good at leading a business is not the same set of skills that makes someone good at leading a country.