This weekend, Avengers: Infinity War debuted. It is the culmination of 10 years and 18 movies in Marvel Cinematic Universe (if we start counting with Iron Man back in 2008). And while the latest Marvel blockbuster contains more than two dozen heroes, gods, and spacefaring adventures, it is the "First Avenger," Captain America, that I want to focus on. While the original comic-book character is more than 75 years old, the leadership lessons he embodies continue to evolve.
So what can the star-spangled Avenger teach you about running your business? A lot--but first, some backstory for those who were living in a cave for the last 100 years.
A Leader of Heroes
Before he becomes Captain America, Steve Rogers is small and nearsighted, and is deemed unfit for military service in World War II. But his heart leads him to a top-secret experiment that turns him into the hunky super-soldier we all know.
At the end of the war, Rogers stops a Nazi plot by crashing a plane in the Arctic and becomes cryogenically frozen. Decades later he is found and revived by the organization behind the team of superheroes known as the Avengers. He soon becomes the leader of "Earth's mightiest heroes."
At the end of Marvel's third Captain America movie, Captain America: Civil War, Rogers gives up his invulnerable shield and patriotic costume and resigns the mantle of Captain America. He does this because he cannot abide by the government's proposed legislation to register all those with superpowers. So before the start of Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America is simply Steve Rogers: still a hero, but no longer a symbol of America. But rest assured--when the world is threatened, Steve Rogers will rise to the occasion.
Lessons to Learn
- Positional power versus personal power. Great leaders don't rely on their title to command others. They use their personal power to lead. Even when Rogers is no longer Captain America, his personal convictions give him sway over the other heroes and allow him to continue to lead.
- Be a Level V Leader. Jim Collins's seminal book Good to Great describes "Level V Leadership" (pronounced: Level 5 Leadership) as combining extreme humility with incredible willpower. Collins suggests that Level V Leaders are obsessed with victory for the sake of the venture, not for personal glory. Even though Captain America has saved the world several times and pals around with thunder gods and billionaire geniuses, he remains grounded and focused on the greater goal, not on himself.
- Value inclusion and diversity. Cap sees value in everyone. As a result, he is able to balance world-sized egos and powerhouse monsters, finding the value in each of his teammates regardless of their background, powers, or personality.
- Protect the team. In Captain America: Civil War, Cap stands by a former friend who has been brainwashed into becoming a villain. He refuses to give up on his childhood friend and eventually is able to bring him onto his own team.
- Have a solid core. Rogers (even before he gains superpowers) has incredible integrity and conviction. He wants to fight the Nazis and refuses to stop trying to join the military, even after each branch rejects him based on his lack of physical prowess. Later, that same strong moral core helps him stand by his convictions and refuse to compromise. Strong leaders can be seen sometimes as fanatical, but the key is to focus on what they are fanatical about. In the case of Rogers, it is "truth, justice and the American way."
- Lead by example. "Do as I tell you, not as I do" is not something you will hear from the star-spangled Avenger. Instead, he leads not just with words but with action. He is always the first into the fray and always the last to retreat from the battlefield. Similarly, the best leaders set the bar high and ask others to rise to their level.
- Be transparent and accountable. Every action has consequences, and it is every leader's job to accept both the good and bad that comes from their decisions. In Captain America: Civil War Rogers places loyalty above truth when he withholds the identity of the man who killed Iron Man's parents in order to save the man, who turns out to be his brainwashed best friend from childhood. He pays a great price for this choice: it leads to the "civil war" the movie is focused on. Rogers learns firsthand the price of not being transparent, honest, and accountable.
Avengers: Infinity War will surely be a box office smash, but what I'm excited for is the continued evolution of Steve Rogers, once known as Captain America. While Rogers may not wear the red, white, and blue for the movie, his leadership lessons will still likely remain front and center.