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Are superheroes really role models? New book with Kansas connections examines leaders

You used to be able to simply say “comic books” to imply the topic was about superheroes. But the reality is that these iconic characters have leapt so far beyond the pages of publishers such as Marvel and DC that more people now know Wonder Woman or Nick Fury through films, television and streaming shows than have read their static-paneled adventures.

But that sure didn’t stop us from writing an ink-and-paper book about them.

“Power Up: Leadership, Character and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse” gets published this week by Casemate. This multi-author compendium explores contemporary challenges in leadership while emphasizing the role of human nature and ethics — all viewed through the lens of the costumed crime fighters who continue to dominate the pop culture landscape.

As an editor and writer of the project, I’m part of a team that recruited a heroic roster of 35 contributors. This includes “World War Z” author Max Brooks, presidential administration speechwriter Amelia Cohen-Levy, the Air Force’s first female B-52 squadron commander Kera Rolsen, BET Studios partner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and “Batman: The Animated Series” co-creator Mitch Brian.

The latter two are both KC natives, and several other writers have strong local ties, including fellow editor Steve Leonard (an assistant dean at the University of Kansas School of Business), Geoff Harkness, Alyssa Jones, Mathew Klickstein and Jeff Drake.

As I note in the book’s foreword, whether experienced in microscopic realms or celestial reaches, the challenges superheroes (and supervillains) confront prove legitimately significant in today’s world. Philosophy, ethics, accountability and all things relating to the human condition are reflected in the tales of these “metahumans.”

To whet your appetite, here is a sample chapter from the section of “Power Up” titled “Avengers Assemble!” that looks at “high-performing teams and the art and inspiration behind their creation.” Lawrence resident Matt Lancaster writes a piece called “The River of Truth,” which contrasts the morality of Captain America with today’s partisan political divide.

As Spider-Man’s famous adage exclaims: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

“Power Up” echoes that sentiment, presenting beneficial insight into how the superhero multiverse affects us all.

Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan wreaking havoc in “Captain America: Civil War.” Disney-Marvel Studios
Chris Evans, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan wreaking havoc in “Captain America: Civil War.” Disney-Marvel Studios

‘The River of Truth’

Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.

This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.

When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world …

… “No, YOU move.”

— Captain America, “Amazing Spider-Man #537”

I remember reading these words in my friend’s basement at the height of my superhero obsession, somewhere in the late 2000s. The local bookstore had started stocking trades and we had just discovered Marvel’s Civil War run. Hype for the movies was building — this was in the days after Sam Raimi’s take on Spider-Man and the first Iron Man film — and these words hit at the exact right time and place in my life.

I was an upperclassman in high school, trying to figure out how to get away from home and what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and we were caught in that bittersweet adolescent fugue of realizing the world is not what your parents and teachers made it out to be but also that you have no idea what it should be. We were not yet brave enough to follow Cap’s sage wisdom, but we aspired to that level of self-confidence and righteousness in the face of our rapidly changing worldview.

Spider-Man’s reply to this riff on a Mark Twain quote is to pause before asking, “Can I, like, carry your books to school? For the rest of my life?”

We felt that.

Captain America utters this famous line in “Amazing Spider-Man #537,” published in 2007. Marvel
Captain America utters this famous line in “Amazing Spider-Man #537,” published in 2007. Marvel

Perhaps one of Cap’s most famous lines, this dialogue has inspired countless online discussions and moments of self-revelation. It even featured (albeit, delivered by an entirely different character) in the “Captain America: Civil War” film, the one that introduces the prospect of fratricide to the series. There is something for everyone:

A healthy dose of rose-colored patriotism.

The promise of vindication in the face of criticism, doubt, and competing belief systems.

Courage to stand up for what’s right.

The fantasy of a heroic stand against opposing forces.

These words, penned in December of 2006 by J. Michael Straczynski, would inspire people like me for years to come. These words catapulted Captain America to the top of my list of favorite superheroes, and these words inspired me as I set out to begin my life. Over the years, I would revisit these words — through pinned Facebook and Goodreads quotes, as an ever-present sticky note on my laptop in college, and when trying to impress girls as being a “nerd” became popular in the early 2010s. Cap’s self-assurance was exactly the shield (a little pun intended) that my emerging and conflicted identity needed to defend itself from those who would threaten or question it. As I left home and railed against the small-town values and beliefs I had been surrounded by, I was confident in the belief that my approach to the world was good and right.

One can see the problem here.

Captain America is not the strongest superhero, nor is he the most skilled fighter. From the power grid standpoint, his claim to fame is that he is substantially stronger, faster, and more resilient than a baseline human. What he lacks in extradimensional power, divine wrath, and alchemical fury, he more than makes up for with an iron will and the charisma required to lead people into uncertain odds based solely on purity of belief.

Charisma and willpower can only take a leader so far, however. They can rally people of similar beliefs to one’s banner initially, but what happens when a threat to that belief system arises that cannot be neatly categorized as “evil”? After the initial fervor and excitement dies down, what keeps people committed to the cause — especially in the face of adversity? In fact, when a leader starts thinking of opposing viewpoints as “the mob and the press,” what happens to their credibility? Cap’s comments to Spider-Man came at a crucial time in my life. They shaped my view of leadership and my values, and I didn’t realize until it was almost too late the danger of always standing up for “what we believe.”

The “Civil War” event in Marvel Comics spanned seven core issues between 2006–2007, with multiple tie-in issues across its flagship characters/series throwing everyone into the proverbial pool. Interested readers may wish to start with the 192-page trade paperback simply titled “Civil War.”

While the event is featured in — and even directs the course of — the MCU films, the origins of this superhuman conflict are somewhat more sinister in the comics. A small-time team of superheroes known as the New Warriors is filming a battle in Stamford, Connecticut, against a group of villains recently escaped from the Raft. One of the baddies is known as Nitro, who features the predictable ability to explode and reform himself at will, causes a blast that destroys the New Warriors, a staggering amount of civilians, and 60 schoolchildren at a nearby elementary school.

This “preventable” tragedy (the New Warriors were outclassed by those they took on but did so anyway to drive ratings for their reality show, and one of them was found to have taunted Nitro into the bombing) triggers the United States government to introduce the Superhuman Registration Act in an effort to track, curb, and direct the activities of those who place themselves above the confines of humanity and the law.

Marvel has long tied the issues that its characters face to those of its readership, and our history is darkly colored by similar efforts to categorize and ostracize the fearsome “other”— the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, redlining and white flight, and Japanese internment camps to name only a few. Naturally, the Act served as a catalyst for the superhuman Civil War.

“Power Up: Leadership, Character and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse” comes out this week. Casemate
“Power Up: Leadership, Character and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse” comes out this week. Casemate

Like in the 2016 film “Captain America: Civil War,” Steve and Tony head up opposing sides of the issue. While Iron Man had originally been an anti-registration advocate, even going so far to stage an attack against himself to demonstrate why persecution against “mutants” was a singularly bad idea, he finds the Stamford incident to be utterly indefensible and begins advocating for the oversight, training, and policing that the Act would provide, as well as for those superhumans who have yet to reveal their true identities to do so. Captain America — always a champion of the people before the government in a sort of libertarian’s utopic ideal — argues that if the government (read: S.H.I.E.L.D.) can control the heroes, they can control who is labeled the villains.

Tensions come to a head as Cap evades arrest and forms the Secret Avengers, and Iron Man is tasked with taking him down. Both sides give up their moral high ground as pro-registration forces hire killers such as Bullseye and Venom to seek out those who will not accede, while anti-registration revolutionaries respond in kind by bringing Punisher into the fold, who takes it upon himself to murder potential allies based on his own judgment of their past actions. Lynchings, beatings, and isolated murders of resistance members give way to open conflict the world over.

The final battle devastates New York City for the umpteenth time, and just as Steve is about to deal his former friend Tony a finishing blow, a group of civilian first responders (the real heroes, as Marvel so often implies) force him to survey the damage his rebellion has caused to those he swore to protect, and he surrenders.

Like many Marvel events and story arcs, “Civil War” is aptly placed both in context and history. Having been published just five years after the events of the Sept. 11 attacks and the establishment of the Patriot Act, it explores the consequences of government surveillance and intervention giving way to overreach and witch-hunting. It finished six years prior to the Boston Marathon bombing, which tragically showcased how dangerous the court of public opinion can be when several young people were erroneously identified as the culprit on social media giant Reddit. It highlights the incompatibility of individualism and isolationism in a crowded world and complicated political environment with as many players as there are stakes.

Most importantly to this author, it explores the concept of truth. What is your truth, what is mine, and how do we navigate the space between? Captain America nobly planted himself beside the river of his own truth, and it led to even more death and conflict — but would it have mattered if he capitulated?

Establishing values and communicating them is an important early step for leaders, but being married to one’s own viewpoint (or worse — demonizing that of others) is a surefire way to undermine that leadership.

We would like to believe that those who seek leadership positions do so out of noble intent — to share skills or experience for the benefit of all, to use their status and resources to serve those without, or to advance an organization’s prospects through shared commitment to a common cause. Indeed, most do — the ranks of corporate executives, nonprofit directors, government officials, and educational administrators are made up of far more folks who would do good than tyrants and despots, and these latter do not maintain their prestige in the public eye for long.

But, as the centuries-old proverb goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Captain America’s intent was good — to protect both the common people and their superhuman champions and to fight against political and institutional corruption. He may have even been right. It was his approach — his staunch adherence to his own definition of “right” above all else — that was his downfall and that led in part to such destabilization and chaos. Our own society is full of examples of this kind of misguided virtue signaling.

As a native Kansan, I remember well the tenure of former governor Sam Brownback. Elected in 2010, Brownback championed conservative ideals in the state of Kansas until leaving office in 2018 as one of the least popular governors in the nation, boasting a 66 percent disapproval rating and facing legislative repeals of his own gubernatorial acts. He went on to serve as former president Donald Trump’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, but is remembered across the state on both sides of the political aisle for his “red-state experiment.”

Brownback slashed the income tax in Kansas with the intent of establishing economic growth by increasing his citizenry’s capacity to invest and spend and businesses’ capacity to hire and grow — a tactic of supply-side economics and common value of his Republican party. As he signed these historic tax cuts into law in May 2012, he referred to them as a “real live experiment.”

As the years went by, members of his own party cautioned him against the catastrophic effects these cuts were having on the state’s economy and urged him to roll back the cuts. The state faced a budget deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars. Rather than heeding those around him, Brownback stuck to his guns, and many state agencies — most notably the areas of education and transportation — took hits that would take years to recover from. As the experiment continued to fail, he was forced to borrow from the state pension fund and other self-sustaining areas to prop up his general budget, leading to a bipartisan coalition rolling back most of his dramatic tax reforms despite his veto of the measures shortly before he left office. Among the many controversies plaguing his tenure as governor, his legacy has been defined by the way he continued to tank the Kansas economy and its infrastructure despite a wealth of criticism from around the nation.

Brownback planted himself like a tree beside the river of the “Reagan Formula,” and his people suffered for it.

Blockbuster video stores refused to acknowledge a changing market and failed. Jason Vorhees/The Telegraph
Blockbuster video stores refused to acknowledge a changing market and failed. Jason Vorhees/The Telegraph

Regardless of politics, most readers will remember the days of walking into a Blockbuster store on a Friday afternoon and picking out a movie or two — and perhaps a bucket of popcorn — for the weekend. It was a summer ritual for my family, and one that has been lost like so many others to the rose-colored haze of nostalgia. In the span of roughly a decade, Blockbuster went from a titan of home entertainment boasting 9,000 stores to one of the most well-documented failures of the “old days.”

The video rental chain had multiple opportunities to see the writing on the wall. It walked away from a buyout of the fledgling startup known as Netflix. It stuck to an outdated revenue model centered on pricing that big box retailers were undercutting and late fees that competitors stopped charging. It brought on investors and executives that scoffed at the move to online business in favor of brick-and-mortar stores. Blockbuster adhered to an outdated business strategy and financial model in the face of a changing landscape, perhaps favoring the stability of what it had known and done best for years.

No matter the odds or consequences, Blockbuster refused to pivot, and so it failed.

The rise and fall of former president Donald Trump is perhaps an unprecedented tale of the modern era — and, based on the violence and fallout of his succession in the Oval Office — hopefully unlike anything the United States will see again. The president’s antics, personality, and politics aside, the events of Jan. 6, 2021, speak to the potential dangers of leadership built on infectious charisma and ironclad resolve.

At the time of this writing, Trump’s involvement with the attack on the United States Capitol has yet to be officially determined, though the former president has been subpoenaed to speak before the investigative committee. But, in a dark mirror to the First Avenger’s adherence to his own principles no matter the odds, Trump’s leadership undoubtedly added fuel to the insurrectionist fire.

In the days, weeks, and months following the election, Trump repeatedly took to social media decrying the results and making (ultimately baseless) claims of fraud and abuse of power. He spoke of president-elect Joe Biden and his party as a king does of a usurper, and refused to concede even as many of his allies quietly accepted the outcome. After the debate leading up to the election, he cryptically advised his more militant supporters — those of the right-wing extremist group the “Proud Boys,” for example — to “stand back and stand by,” rather than condemning the looming threat of violence outright. On the day of the Capitol riot, Trump knew that many attendees of his “Save America” rally were armed, and stoked them to a near-religious fervor using language revolving around fighting, then resisted deploying the National Guard to quell the insurrection once his followers had breached the Capitol building, erected a gallows, and begun calling for the death of then Vice President Mike Pence among others.

Donald Trump’s presidency and legacy may be defined by his ability to motivate the masses that others had forgotten. In a vacuum, his persona could be called “charismatic” to say the least, as evidenced by the fact that years after his election loss and impeachment and in the midst of a criminal investigation, one can still see his flag flying high in communities across the nation.

In the face of defeat and after the world told him to move, Trump told the mob and the press, “No, you move,” and it very nearly led to a violent overthrow of the United States Capitol.

Fortunately, the consequences of this kind of individualistic and idealistic leadership are recorded plainly for us to reflect on.

Captain America, upon seeing the destruction his faction’s desperate need for vindication had wrought upon those he served, ultimately surrendered. Does this mean that Tony was right all along? Unlikely — the Human Torch was beaten into a coma outside of a nightclub, and one of the survivors of the New Warriors, Speedball, was shot en route to the courthouse where he would agree to register. The unfortunate truth of “Civil War” is that neither was completely right, and that there may not be a “right.”

Brownback left office and his state in ignominy, after causing devastating damage to the Kansas economy and financial infrastructure. Had he been open to the counsel of policymakers in and outside of his party, could his vision of the “red-state experiment” had a more positive outcome? Perhaps not, but the manner in which his office handled the criticism and obvious financial blowback leaves Kansas unlikely to try it again.

Blockbuster has been reduced to one physical holdout and a fading collective memory. Had it considered the changing times and the dawn of online commerce, would it still be a major player? It is likely that the entertainment streaming ecosystem would look substantially different than it does today had it been founded on Blockbuster’s brick-and-mortar success with the innovation that Netflix brought to the table.

Trump stands accused of inciting insurrection and the legal, cultural, and socioeconomic damage done to our nation from the five-hour riot will not be fully understood for some time. Had he accepted his defeat and helped facilitate a peaceful transition of power from the announcement of the election results, would the nation still stand so close to the precipice of civil strife? Perhaps this is the way politics will be from now on, though one can hope for a return to some sort of civility.

Though one can imagine that Captain America would have something to say about being compared to Reaganomics, corporate strife, or Donald Trump, each of them illustrates how adhering too closely to one’s personal values and blinding oneself to legitimate counterpoints from the opposition leads to a breakdown of order and a failure of leadership. While Cap’s call to stand for “what you believe in” is a noble one, it can be misguided, and there are lessons to be learned from his downfall.

Steve’s eventual acceptance of the pro-registration movement is a result of being confronted with the pain and suffering inflicted on the “little guys” — the first responders who have to clean up the damage, the world population that is suffering at the hands of the real villains now that the world’s superheroes are embattled with each other, and the ordinary civilians who have died in droves. The power comes from the people, and the ultimate responsibility is to them. This is the first humbling lesson that aspiring leaders must come to terms with and the one that is easiest to express and most difficult to swallow.

Leadership is service.

Whether one is voted in, promoted, or simply takes charge in a leaderless environment, it is easy to assume that the talents, skills, values, and charisma that put them there is enough to sustain effective leadership. This is not the case. Being a true leader of people — one they come to rely upon, one that brings about effective change and success in an organization, and one that can hang their hat on a good day of work or conversation or initiative, means knowing when to set aside what you know to be right. It is knowing which hills to die on, which rivers to plant yourself besides, and when you may have hitched your horse to the wrong buggy. I have experienced this all too often in my own roles as an educational leader — assuming that because we all belong to the same organization and want the same outcomes for our students, that we all agree on the best way to get there (and that the best way is my way). I am often wrong.

Leaders must listen to the people they serve and to external input. As in all things, there is a balance; spending one’s time listening to constant griping is unproductive, as is taking everything that detractors would say personally and so suffering from analysis paralysis. We start with our values, we communicate those values, and then we work to align them with those under our leadership so that the end result is something greater than any of us could have imagined on our own.

Being a leader means being willing to be wrong, and to accept that others may know something more than you, as simple as that sounds. Being a leader means to stand up not only for what you believe in, but for what your people believe in as well. Being a leader means that when the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, it might be because you aren’t seeing the whole picture. And if Captain America can learn that, I think our leaders can, too.

Matt Lancaster is director of the EY Professionalism Program at the University of Kansas School of Business.