As a boy, my parents would tell me it was lights out and time to sleep. I would quickly then grab a torch-light and sneak under the blanket to start reading my favourite super-hero comics – The Amazing Spider-Man. I loved reading my Spider-Man comics. The stories were so interesting and Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) was one of the most human super heroes I have ever encountered.
As a young man, Parker went through a tumultuous time. He was a grade A “geek” of the highest order. He was skinny, weak and constantly bullied by his high school “star” Flash Thompson. He was an extremely anti-social boy, with inferiority complex, and a massive fear of women (well, most teenage boys would probably fit into that category including myself, hence the love of Spider-Man comics!).
Even after Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and gets super powers, he still struggles. His Uncle Ben dies due partly to his lack of “responsibility” to stop a crime. Because of this attitude also, his girlfriend Gwen Stacy’s father – New York City police detective captain George Stacy – was killed during a battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus (Issue No. 90, November 1970). Stacy, the love of his life and the one person he truly loves soon dies too, when the Green Goblin throws her off the tower of a bridge (Issue No. 121, June 1973). What is even more painful for Parker is that the autopsy of her death concluded that, “the whiplash effect she underwent when Spider-Man’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her”.
Parker was a man constantly in pain. Yet, in spite of the constant pain and suffering that he had to undergo throughout his life, he had never let that pain ever distract him from his mission and goal in life – helping all people regardless of age, gender and background.
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As I recall the many Spider-Man comics that I have read, I remember how this introverted boy became a young man who married the world’s greatest supermodel and became the greatest ever superhero in the history of comics (at least to me!). That takes some doing.
And so, I decided to list seven leadership lessons that I learnt from Parker. Here goes my list.
1. Be human at all times. Be yourself
Many leaders believe that just because they have big titles and are leaders, they need to act differently and try to avoid human emotions. Parker struggled at many occasions having to behave like a “hero” and not himself. In fact, it caused significant issues with his marriage to Mary Jane. He was reminded by Captain America, who had similarly learnt about the need to not wear masks and be oneself, advising him that “the mask is supposed to hide your face. Don’t let it hide your heart!” Parker took that advice to heart and always remained true to himself and his personality. As leaders, we should never wear masks, especially when dealing with relationships and matters of the heart.
2. Take responsibility
Great leaders take responsibility for their actions – especially the mistakes and failures. Spider-Man leads by example and he not only owns up to his shortcomings and failures, he never blamed others. As his Uncle Ben reminded him “with great power comes great responsibility.” Many leaders don’t realise how much power they hold in their hands. Your employees look up to you. As leaders, every word muttered is analysed and repeated throughout your department or organisation. Even as parents, our children bestow on us significant power.
Do we truly understand the power we hold in our hands and do we, like Spider-Man, take full responsibility of this power? Or are we ignorant of the power we have?
3. Always smile
Spider-Man is always smiling (well, he is in his suit) in spite of the horrible burden he carries and the pain in his life. Losing the love of his life, his parents, his uncle and finally his aunt, having his wife kidnapped and facing death daily. He still retains a sense of humour and keeps smiling. It takes some doing to be the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man”. Yet almost all great leaders wear a smile on their face constantly.
I met Nobel Prize winner Mohamad Yunus, who was going through some painful times with his government. Yet we met over breakfast, he smiled throughout the meeting. Great leaders go through tremendous moments of pain and suffering just like all of us do. Yet, they realise the power of the smile and have that on their faces. Do you smile often? Do you express your gratitude often? If Spidey can do it, so can you. Keep being funny and smile.
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4. Keep serving others – that is the essence of leadership
Service of others always yields benefits. In the Amazing Spider-Man movie, we see how the web-crawler needs the help of a number of crane operators. The help came to him in the moment of need as the crane foreman was the father of a boy Spider-Man had rescued earlier in the movie. It is far more blessed to serve and to give than to receive.
You will reap rewards for your giving at an important stage of your life. It is the same in my life. At a crucial stage of my leadership when I needed some form of help, it suddenly appears. Later, I realise that the help came because I had previously helped that person. Good karma will always return to you if you invest in helping others. Are you serving while leading?
5. Keep persevering
Never let adversity and pain deter you. Spider-Man has a torrid life with things never working out. Yet, he never let that be an excuse to give up. He was never taken hostage by the complex issues that surrounded him. Most people would give up on helping others especially if it meant losing their loved ones. Spider-Man lost his great love Gwen Stacy because of his love for helping others.
He lost his best friend Harry Osborn and many others. In fact, after losing Stacy, he thought he would never find love again. Yet, he kept going and never gave in to the doubt that crept into his mind.
He finally found the amazing Mary Jane who loved him as deeply. Perseverance pays off whether you are building a business or growing your career. You have to keep going and going and things will ultimately go your way.
6. Leadership does not come free
Many leaders forget the cost of leadership. Being a leader requires you to sacrifice time, money, efforts and endure struggles and pain. We always talk about the benefits of leadership, but we fail to count the cost of it. Spider-Man understood the cost of being a superhero. He lost many things including his privacy and family. As leaders, have we counted the cost of leadership? Just as there is cost associated with anything of value, leadership does not come free.
We need to sacrifice a lot of time. Do we count the cost of leadership? Are we aware of what it truly entails? Spider-Man teaches us to count the cost but still choose to be a leader. But if we don’t take time to understand the cost of our leadership, we will give up the moment crisis and issues arise.
7. You don’t need to lead all the time
Spidey is the type who is not a natural leader. Yet in times of crisis or when he is required to lead, he steps up and leads. During the Titanus saga, Spider-Man led the likes of Wolverine, the Hulk, Nova, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and others to battle against the alien Titanus. In many occasions, Spider-Man lets others lead. He seamlessly moves from being a loyal and dedicated follower to being a decisive and respected leader.
We all can learn to play different roles at different stages in our organisation. Do we let others lead? And do we know when we need to step in and resume leadership?
There are many more lessons that you can learn from Spider-Man. But the most important thing about lessons is to internalise them and leverage them in our lives. May Parker, Spider-Man’s aunt, makes this statement, “I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride.”
Truly, deep down inside us, Spider-Man lingers. We can all learn from Spidey and become great leaders and heroes in the organisation we work with and the families that we lead. So, keep learning and smiling. I wish you a “spidey” career and a wonderful leadership journey ahead.