Full disclosure up front: I’m a Batman fanboy nerd. He is my all-time favorite comic book hero – a masked vigilante who fights crime, injustice, and evil with his wit, training, preparation, and bottomless bank account. He doesn’t have super powers, and yet he’s a card-carrying founding member of the Justice League and a proven fighter capable of going toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel himself.
But like any man, the Caped Crusader is not without his flaws. Starting with this post and finishing with the planned second part, I will discuss a handful of the Dark Knight’s leadership traits, first good, then bad. What lessons can leaders glean from the World’s Greatest Detective? How many more nicknames for Batman can I use?! Keep reading to find out!
Note: I won’t post any spoilers for the movie. In fact, I’m going to stick mainly to the comics.
Bruce Wayne didn’t get to be a leading corporate magnate without knowing his competition, and that same acumen is what makes his nocturnal alter ego so great. Batman puts insane amounts of time and effort into thinking through every possible course of action, every potential move that his enemies (and even his friends) could make, and every alternate method of dealing with every situation. And then he plans, prepares, and trains to counter every one of those actions.
Except any military leader who’s spent a day in uniform knows the old saying that a plan never survives first contact with the enemy. Still, casting his net wide training-wise usually gives Bats the upper hand in a fight. (The chaotic nature of the Joker, who is entirely unpredictable, is probably why he remains Batman’s arch nemesis to this day.)
In the military, when you aren’t fighting, you’re training. Good leaders tailor that training to their specific mission while maintaining the wider skills necessary to be ready for any contingency. Preparation is also critical for succeeding in important meetings, interviews, or other speaking engagements before which you must plan, research, anticipate questions, and rehearse. The next time you have to deliver a briefing to your boss, you should think of yourself in a cape and cowl. Lose the growly voice, though.
The story of Bruce Wayne and Batman is the story of resilience. Okay, so maybe dressing up as a flying rodent and running around at night fighting bad guys outside of the law isn’t the healthiest way to “bounce back” from witnessing the violent death of your parents, but at least ol’ Brucey Boy is doing something productive and not “catastrophizing.”
In fact, the Guardian of Gotham has shown a remarkable ability to suffer from major setbacks and still find a way to regain himself and come back swinging. And when I write “setbacks,” I mean he died. To be more accurate, Batman has died 11 times, at least according to this article from IGN. My personal favorite “death” was when Darkseid zapped him at the end of Final Crisis.
But did that keep Bats down? Hell no! In fact, it just transported him to prehistoric times, after which Bruce had to fight his way through six or so time periods to reach the present. (Again…. try not to question comic book logic too much.) In the mean time, the other half of the original Dynamic Duo, Dick Grayson, puts on the bat-suit and did Gotham proud.
So, to recap, even being sent back millennia through time and having all of his friends think he was a goner didn’t keep The Batman down. He avoided the pity party, methodically worked his way back to present time, and showed back up ready to party as if nothing had happened.
Resiliency in the real world isn’t quite as easy or fantastical. Leaders have to set the example by personally demonstrating resiliency and by preaching the good word of being resilient (which, by the way, isn’t the same as putting on a Master Resiliency Training death-by-PowerPoint session). Shit happens, and it takes mental and emotional toughness and guts to bounce back from that. Sometimes folks need help bouncing back, and that’s alright. You don’t have to be in a leadership position to be a leader and help out someone in need. Even Batman asks for help from time to time.
3) Develops Subordinates
Despite how the movies have portrayed him lately, Batman doesn’t always work alone, and he’s quite often seen
endangering the life of children fighting crime with a sidekick. Depending on what you consider canon, Bruce is currently on his fourth or fifth incarnation of Robin. What remains consistent is that, whoever sports the Boy Wonder tights (Girl Wonder if you’re counting Stephanie Brown), Batman is sure to put them through the crucible to make sure they can handle the rigors of crime fighting and detective work.
Leaders have a responsibility to develop those in their organization. Sometimes that role isn’t as clear cut as the military sense of training and formal professional development sessions. Sometimes that role means figuring out what it is your people want to do personally or educationally and enabling them as best as possible to reach their goals. Maybe it’s taking classes to get a degree. Maybe it’s figuring out how to invest and save money. What can you do as a leader to facilitate? Whatever it is, try to make sure it doesn’t involve dressing kids in brightly colored tights and parading them in front of gun-toting lunatics at night.
4) Mentorship and Loyalty
Every Robin has to leave the nest. (See what I did there?) When that happens, they eventually get over that resentment and angst toward their former Bat-in-Charge. Granted, Bats isn’t the vocally supportive, touchy-feely kind of mentor. His style is more the “suck it up and drive on” type, but, Bruce cares deeply about his “Bat Family” and would do anything for them–after putting them in the line of danger and withholding critical information from them. (But let’s save that for another post.)
Bruce is fiercely loyal to his team, and, amazingly enough, his team is loyal in return despite his cold and often emotionless demeanor. The relationships they forged while combating the forces of evil are unmatched in the DC multiverse. Even after members of the “Bat Family” go their separate ways, they always come back.
Mentorship and loyalty are more of those things that don’t come with a leadership position, but they do accompany leadership. Good leadership, anyway. When you take care of your followers and do right by them, the loyalty follows by itself. Likewise, a mentorship relationship follows from loyalty and a personal connection. Nathan Finney said it very well in his piece “Mentorship Done Right: An Aaron Sorkin Version of the Military” when he wrote: “Mentorship only occurs if there’s a personal spark between two people — both the mentor and the protégé have to believe the other is worth spending time on and with.”
5) Stand up for What You Believe In
Batman is nothing if not a stalwart defender of justice and the concept of wrongdoers getting what they deserve. Despite his vigilantism and general operation outside of the law, the Dark Knight has a healthy respect for the criminal justice system. That respect is evidenced by his longtime friendship with Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and by his refusal to use guns (for the most part).
The Caped Crusader’s fire for justice burns hottest when faced with an absolute evil, often best exemplified by the Joker. If you’ve suffered through my fanboying all the way up to this point, chances are you already know the reprehensible credentials of the Clown Prince of Crime. Here are just a few highlights (lowlights?):
- He tortured and killed Robin #2, Jason Todd.
- He shot, tortured, and paralyzed Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and the Commissioner’s daughter).
- He sliced his own face off and proceeded to wear it as a grotesque mask. (He then later makes Batman believe he sliced off the faces of everyone in the Bat Family.)
- In The Dark Knight Returns he kills himself just after Batman stops beating him in order to frame Batman for the death.
- In that same story, he passes out poisoned cotton candy to a Boy Scout Troop, killing them all.
- He has indiscriminately killed countless men, women, and children.
- He mentally and physically abuses his obsessed sort-of-partner Harley Quinn.
Yet for all that, Batman stands up for justice and refuses to intentionally kill anyone, including his nemesis, The Joker. Sure, he’s come close, and sure there have been alternate universe stories where he ended the Joker’s life. Canonical Batman, however, has never killed The Joker (or another person intentionally, for that matter).
Principles can be hard to uphold when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, but it is the leader who chooses the hard right over the easy wrong. Will you or I ever face a real-world incarnation of something so diametrically and diabolically opposed to our personal morals and beliefs that we will be challenged to forego them? Probably nothing that grandiose and sinister, but Batman does provide a (mostly) terrific example of what it means to hold fast to what makes us us.
In Part 2 of “Batman v Leadership,” I’ll take a look at some of the Dark Knight’s more unsavory examples of leadership, or, rather, lack thereof. Stay tuned – same bat time, same bat channel, er, blog.
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