When to be a Superman Leader VS. a Clark Kent Leader
“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.”
– Jackson Beck, Radio Narrator
As a kid, I dreamt about being Superman. Flying in, saving lives, catching the falling plane, stopping the bank robbery, and defeating the villain — ultimately saving the day!
It must be exciting to have all of that power and wield it to solve problems quickly.
And Superman knew just how to use it — his strategies were very successful in fighting crime and averting crises in and around Metropolis.
And though not equipped with the same bright red flowing cape or superhero powers, leaders today are sometimes tempted to use the power they do have in a Superman-esque approach to problem-solving — immediately swooping in to “save the day” as soon as a problem arises.
Have you experienced either of the following scenarios?
1. A meeting commences and without soliciting any input from the rest of the participants in the room, the Superman Leader kicks things off by saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
2. A meeting commences and the Superman Leader shares their idea first, before providing merely lip service to “hear everyone else’s ideas.”
These are two classic examples of Superman Leaders — leaders who swoop in to save the day with their own ideas first, without giving careful consideration to the thoughts and ideas of others.
In both examples, the Superman Leader’s approach may serve to solve the problem alright, but simultaneously does a disservice to his team by effectively silencing the rest of the group.
While Superman Leaders may have great ideas, if they are always single-handedly “saving the day,” they squelch any opportunity for the rest of the “Justice League” to contribute and/or grow in the process.
This puts the rest of the meeting participants into an awkward position. They can’t feel free to share their ideas in fear of going against the Superman Leader.
And even if they do, how many times do you suppose a participant would be allowed to disagree or oppose their leader’s position on the solution before being labeled insubordinate, disagreeable, or ‘not a good fit?’
Even if Superman Leaders invite participants to disagree with them, the outcome is still inevitably rigged. Much like Superman challenging Batman to a foot race, you already know who has the power to win.
As much as I admire Superman, I would argue that there is a better approach when it comes to leadership — an alternative method used by mature and skilled leaders who grow their people not by constantly playing the role of Superman, but by finding as many opportunities as possible to lead like his alter ego, Clark Kent.
Though Superman and Clark Kent are in essence the same person, Kent is in many ways quite the antithesis of a power-wielding superhero altogether.
As an investigative journalist, Clark Kent is calm and a good listener. He takes good notes, asks probing questions, and takes the time to get the scoop from every angle and every witness. He makes an effort to get every detail of the story.
That’s what sets Clark Kent Leaders apart.
While a Superman Leader leads with brute strength, a Clark Kent Leader knows how to pair that strength with kindness and humility, keeping his power in check and allowing other people to shine.
Unlike the Superman Leader, whenever a Clark Kent Leader enters a meeting and a problem is presented, he asks everyone in the room what they know about the problem and how they would solve it. He remains curious and pushes others in the room to share their ideas first.
He also displays his interest by asking follow up questions, and gives each team member the opportunity to speak freely without feeling judged or being labeled insubordinate — all for the sake of weaving together a more complete story, and ultimately a more effective solution.
Because the Clark Kent leader takes the time to hear from every contributor about every angle of a problem before jumping to conclusions, he not only gains a better understanding of the situation, but so does his team. Through these types of rapport-building conversations, each team member has the opportunity to broaden their perspective and consider the effect their proposed solution would have on others, as well.
And not only does a Clark Kent Leader give every team member a platform to speak and contribute, he’s also not afraid to give credit where credit is due. Just as any credible journalist carefully and honestly cites his sources, a Clark Kent Leader recognizes, applauds, elevates, and celebrates his team for the role they play in the story as well.
Ultimately by Leading with Kindness instead of strength and power alone, his team not only solves problems better, but they grow in the process.
I love Superman. I love that he represents hope. I love that he is someone who can swoop in and save the day against all odds.
But Superman knows that he shouldn’t be Superman all the time.
As a leader, it’s of utmost importance to be wise in choosing the moments to be a Superman Leader and when to be a Clark Kent Leader.
A great leader has the power to save the day and the wisdom to know when to not use it.
There are times when a leader does need to be Superman Leader by swooping in to save the day, but that’s a different story for a different time.
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Nathan is an inspirational leadership speaker. His presentations reveal the key to becoming a great leader is treating people with kindness.
Nathan is an accomplished keynote speaker, executive speaker coach, and bestselling author. He has been a marketing leader in the technology world for over 10 years and has experience as a theater director, educator, and entertainment manager.
Nathan is married with four children. He has a love for theme parks, the Smoky Mountains, comic books, and sushi.