The Leadership Qualities Captain America Taught My Seven-Year-Old
There’s a wonderful scene in the first Avengers superhero movie that made a huge impact on my seven-year-old son. Aliens are invading NYC. It’s a total mess. Iron Man turns to Captain America and says, “Call it Cap.” Cap starts telling each Avenger what their roles are, and they get to it. The last guy is the Hulk, who isn’t exactly known for following orders. Cap’s final instruction, “And Hulk . . . smash.” The Hulk smiles a big, toothy grin because going on a rampage is what he does best. At that moment, you know Cap’s team is clicking, and the aliens don’t have a chance.
It was this “Hulk smash” instruction that caught my son’s attention. After the movie, he said to me, “Captain America is the best Avenger.” He explained that Cap isn’t the fastest or strongest, and he can’t fly. Yet, he further clarified (and I’m paraphrasing of course) that Cap is a great leader because he puts his team members into positions where they can succeed. “Hulk is good at smashing so he told Hulk to smash,” my son said.
Like any good manager, Captain America alters the system he has in place to maximize talent - not the other way around. One of the biggest mistakes managers make is they rigidly adhere to whatever their management system is while trying to alter personnel to fit into it. The leadership skill my son learned was that if Captain America had tried to force the Hulk in to the wrong place in the plan, instead of giving him the freedom to “smash” so well, the team likely would have failed.
Effective leaders have flexible business management systems that allow them to put personnel in places where their talents can thrive. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, the only Division I men’s basketball coach to win over 1000 college games, does this. As he explains, “A common mistake among those who work in sports is spending a disproportional amount of time on ‘x’s and o’s’ as compared to time spent learning about people. . . . People have to be given the freedom to show the heart they possess. I think it’s a leader’s responsibility to provide that type of freedom.”
Abraham Lincoln got this too. Instead of just rewarding political allies with cabinet positions, he modified the selection process by putting political rivals into cabinet positions if they were best suited for them. As Leonard Swett, one of Lincoln’s advisors, wrote:
He never judged men by his like, or dislike for them. If any given act was to be performed, he could understand that his enemy could do it just as well as any one. If a man had maligned him, or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse, and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his Cabinet just as soon as he would his friend.
In fact, there are studies that touch on management skills. As the National Institutes of Health concluded, “Ideally, leaders use their power to steer groups toward desired outcomes.” But poor leaders are rigid and do not provide the freedom for people to do well. Instead, the study found that poor leaders “excluded a highly skilled group member, and prevented a proficient group member from having any influence over a group task.”
Your boss can’t be Captain America. Yet, having a boss with the people skills and flexibility to properly assign team members toward their strengths is not too much to expect. Is your boss tasking you and others to perform in areas where you aren’t well-suited because you have to follow “the plan?” Is your team failing as a result? If so, maybe your boss doesn’t understand the team building lesson my seven-year-old learned from Captain America about management styles. And maybe it’s time to go somewhere else – somewhere where they will let you “smash.”