5 Working Lessons From The Dark Knight

Jul 02, 2013 1 Min Read

What Batman can teach us about career growth

Batman shows that a man can become a superhero with determination and ingenuity

The Dark Knight trilogy, the latest adaptation of Batman by Christopher Nolan has been a huge success. As of today, the entire series has collected more than US$2.4bil worldwide, and all three are in the Top 250 Movies of all time on IMDb, the acclaimed internet movie database.

Rather than just a typical superhero feature with fancy graphics, Nolan’s Dark Knighttrilogy packs in real life lessons. More importantly, unlike other crime fighters, Batman does not actually possess any powers. As an ordinary human being (albeit with massive wealth) he has to work on his mortal fears and weaknesses.

The Dark Knight might be a fictional character, but the takeaways from the movies are very much relevant in our daily lives, both personal and professional. Here are five wisdoms from the latest Batman franchise.

Fair warning, this piece covers plot elements from all three movies (Batman Begins,The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises) – spoiler alert if you have not watched them.

1. Build great, everlasting legacies

At the start of Batman Begins, we discover how Bruce Wayne trained to become a warrior. We see how much he went through (beating up inmates for practice, joining thieves, climbing snowy mountains to reach the temple of the ‘League of Shadows’) to the extent that he lost his way.

Before he was taken in under Ra Al Ghul’s tutelage, the young Wayne had only one real intention – to avenge his parents’ death. Upon realising that the League of Shadows’ ultimate motive was to destroy his beloved Gotham along with the legacies of the Wayne family, he reneged and vowed to protect it instead.

It is at that point it dawns on Wayne that he cannot defend Gotham City as a man. Thus the idea of a symbol is born, and Batman begins.

Now, how is this relevant to our lives? Think for a minute and list the best, memorable brands around. Are they just like any other entity or is there a face to it? Of course, there are some exceptions – Mark Zuckerberg is Facebook, and closer to home, Tony Fernandes is AirAsia.

But then again, who’s the face of Coca-Cola? Or Tesco? Or perhaps to a certain extent, Google?

Statistically, 90% of businesses do not survive after one year, and even less companies last beyond five years. All the companies mentioned above have survived and grown exceptionally well. And while at times it is critical to have a strong figure to be the face of the company, more often than not, a great idea can outlive the person behind it.

Sadly though, there are some companies that follow the icon’s departure/demise – think Microsoft (post Bill Gates) or even Apple without Steve Jobs.

Perhaps it makes good sense then to always inspire everyone in the company to have similar aspirations – strategic alignment in corporate speak – so that the legacy can be continued. The fact of the matter is, it can be done successfully.

Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin Atlantic fame) has more than 300 companies under the Virgin empire, but he does not run all of them. Yet all of the companies have the same aspiration and ideals, all set by the man himself.

In The Dark Knight Rises, in the end Wayne leaves Gotham, trusting Robin to continue his legacy. To him, everyone who really wants to make a change can be a hero.


2. Trust the good in people

In The Dark Knight, our caped crusader is pushed to the limits, going all the way to stop his greatest nemesis, The Joker. The brilliant yet psychopathic clown manages to repeatedly outwit Batman, forcing him to hack into phone networks (highly unethical) in order to track The Joker. At one point, two boats full of criminals and innocent people are about to be blown to bits – and there is nothing that Batman can do to save them. In the end the people save their own lives by not clicking the detonator.

Gotham as a city is so troubled that everyone is on survival mode, desperate to save their skin. Without Batman or good people like commissioner Gordon to unite them, total chaos would take over. But our hero believes that the people of Gotham are capable of doing good.

We see this same defensive dynamic in real life. Often times we focus too much on ourselves to get ahead – a big bonus, raise, promotion – so much so that we forget about our colleagues.

Any company, big or small, is only as strong as the bond that is formed among the employees. Of course, the pressure to perform exists. But if everyone is extremely competitive to the extent that it damages the dynamics of the whole office, it could be counterproductive. We can all have that occasional team building exercise, but it takes real effort to sustain good relationships among employees.

Again, look at the examples of great companies. Despite the presence of office politics, having a great team is really important in order to succeed in the corporate world.

Trusting the good in others is step one to having excellent chemistry with colleagues.


3. Take risks and persevere

After being defeated by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, his most formidable adversary yet, Wayne is thrown into an underground prison with very little possibility of escape. Located a few hundred metres below the surface, the only way out is to climb out with a rope – with extremely high risk of death from falling. Only one had ever escaped. And Wayne is badly injured.

Wayne is again tested physically and psychologically. In a bid to destroy Gotham, the League of Shadows returns – led by Bane. With his sheer power and brute strength, Batman is no match for Bane.

Outsmarted and badly injured, only strong will and determination saves Wayne from slow and painful death. He tries to escape the prison three times, twice failing before succeeding the third. And it is not his recovered physical strength that helps him; it is pure mental prowess.

If there is one thing we can learn from this it is that we have to take risks to get ahead. Even if we fail during the first few attempts, it should only motivate us to try harder. Take the example of the world’s biggest online retailer, Amazon.com

The company went online in 1995. Initially, the company’s growth rate was very slow given its unusual business plan. Still, it survived the dotCom bubble burst in 2001, recording profit for the very first time amidst the massive burnout of online businesses at that time. Amazon grew significantly thereafter, eventually beating out conventional bookstores and starting to offer a wider range of products.

Had Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon caved in at the beginning when investors complained about slow growth rate and questioned the profitability of the business, Amazon would not be where it is now. It was unthinkable that people would buy books online given that the existing model of bricks and mortar had served its purpose well. The eventual success of Amazon even forced its major competitor (Borders) out of business.

The truth is, we all face the same challenges in our career lives. There will always be a set of tough tasks and difficult people. It is important that we learn from our failures, persevere and try harder. If we never take risks, we might never know how far we can go.

Superheroes aren't infallible, sometimes they face major challenges! Bane wasn't an easy opponent for Batman to overcome.Superheroes aren’t infallible, sometimes they face major challenges! Bane wasn’t an easy opponent for Batman to overcome.


4. Seek advisers

Wayne, on his own accord, is highly capable of impressive feats – he did, after all, graduate from an Ivy League school. But he does not think of himself as the only “saviour” of any problem.

He was primed to take over the running of Wayne Enterprises, a family legacy his father left him. Yet, just like his father (a medical practitioner), he trusted the executives to ensure smooth running of the empire. In The Dark Knight, he believed that the right person to be at the forefront of crime-fighting was not himself, but the district attorney Harvey Dent. After all, he had worked with Dent and commissioner Gordon to stop The Joker. To him, Dent was the more capable white knight able to restore peace and order in Gotham city.

Despite the riches, his tactical brilliance and impressive gadgets in his arsenal, Wayne/Batman possesses the humility to realise that he needs the help of others to achieve his mission.

This story is similar to what happened at Google in the beginning. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the genius co-founders of the now internet giant realised that while they were very good in programming, they needed to get someone to grow Google as a business. The result: Eric Schmidt was appointed CEO, and together the triumvirate steered Google to great heights.

The same lesson is true with multiple other great leaders – no matter how brilliant you are, always seek advice from others. It gives you better perspective, can complement your strengths and work on shortcomings. Zuckerberg has Sheryl Sandberg to help Facebook grow from a social network to a revenue generating business. The message is clear – great people are always surrounded by a team of excellent advisers.

Understandably, this is easier said than done. In climbing the corporate ladder, we may at times be overly focused on only our personal interests, forgetting the substantial benefits of getting another view or two to help us get the job done. In reality, to be successful in this already competitive environment, one cannot do it alone.


5. Learn from mistakes

Perhaps the most important lesson from The Dark Knight is his tenacity to learn, or to be more precise, learn from mistakes.

When Wayne decides to be Batman and protect Gotham, he starts without his bat suit and a ski mask to hide his identity. Without his armour, he is vulnerable and prone to injury. Afterwards, even with his complete protective suit, he realises that it has to be lighter and more agile.

In his quest for peace keeping, Batman faces super villains with extraordinary capabilities. Scarecrow, The Joker, and Bane are disturbingly a different kind of menace compared to other criminals Gotham ever had to deal with.

Batman consistently has to figure out their weaknesses in order to defeat them, getting outsmarted at every step. He has the whole city, normal people and cops alike, turning against him, physically battering him and forcing him into hiding.

Most of his fights are not won with brute strength; rather his realisation of past mistakes and determination.

Great companies are always looking ahead, but not without learning from shortcomings either from their own experience or others. Facebook was considerably late into social media, but it learned one great lesson from the then leader Myspace – never run out of server bandwidth. South Korean car makers, synonymous with lousy built quality and design back then, are now competing with legacy brands such as Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota, and Honda.

We all make mistakes. And it is perfectly fine and human to err. But it would be a bigger blunder to not learn from the past. We fail so that we can pick ourselves up.

Granted, Wayne is able to become Batman largely due to his incredible wealth. Other than that, he trains himself to intellectual and physical mastery and learning a variety of crime-fighting skills, including chemistry, criminology, forensics, martial arts, gymnastics, disguise and escape artistry. Wayne’s knowledge of so many varied disciplines makes him an unconventional and unpredictable individual. And his tactic to oppose crime as a vigilante proves successful leading him to become an urban legend in Gotham City.


Closing thoughts

Yes, Batman is mere fiction. But as it is, he is a symbol, an entity that inspires normal human beings to rise up to the challenge and always stand for what they believe in. Applying this to our careers, we all have the intensity and tenacity of the caped crusader, especially where hard work, inventive and inquisitive thinking are required. Remember that Wayne is only a human without any super natural powers. His dedication to diligence should serve as an important lesson for the real world.

“The idea was to be a symbol. Batman could be anybody; that was the point.”


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Tags: Foundational Leadership


This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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