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Iron Man for CEO?

4 min read


I just saw “Iron Man 3” with my family, and it was a good time. Bad guys. Good guys. Destruction. Even humble pie big enough to go around. As I enjoyed the pyrotechnics and good-guy triumph, however, I was reminded of how completely our comic books reinforce the most unhelpful of bad boy leadership stereotypes.

In the three-part saga of “Iron Man,” Tony Stark is the lovable cad, the Hamlet-esque heir to the throne who takes his place as King by killing off his crown-aspiring uncle through brute force — in robot suits. The arrogant-but-brilliant, unstoppable and always-victorious hero, he runs a multi-billion-dollar global corporation into, and out of, a financial nosedive through sheer intellect and chutzpah while personally defeating terrorists and saving the planet from aliens.

Of course, he gets the girls, all of them. Spoiler alert — so that he doesn’t appear inhuman, in this final installment Tony suffers and survives the modern wounds of anxiety attacks, while saving the president of the United States from a fireball crucifixion of death.

 It sounds comical written out this way because it is, but ask yourself: How many leaders do you know who aspire on some level to a leadership model of personal heroism that justifies bad behavior and unhealthy risk-taking? Delusions of grandeur included, a less comical but equally unrealistic vision of leader-as-hero is operating in our business culture.

This is too bad because it’s not what the people of the world want.

Literally, tens of thousands of them were asked, and they pretty much said, “We’re done with that guy in the real world.”

What people want

You may not have heard of this study yet because it arrived on the wings of a goddess. “The Athena Doctrine” (Jossey-Bass, April, 2013) summarizes two years of research conducted by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio on their research panel of 64,000 people in 13 countries. The authors made their name in 2010 by finding that global spending patterns were shifting fundamentally after the 2008 financial crisis. The research behind “The Athena Doctrine,” conducted with the same research base, shows that in addition to spending differently, people want a different kind of leadership in the halls of power.

Not only does the modern alternative hero not look like Tony Stark, in a twist sure to puzzle Superman, it doesn’t even look male.

Gerzema and D’Antonio followed a hypothesis that the world’s population was tiring of paternalistic leadership styles, which it associates with delivering little more than scandal, gridlock and a shaky-at-best economy. They questioned 32,000 people to find out what characteristics people thought were inherently masculine and feminine, and then they asked another 32,000 people to rank the qualities of the ideal leader. According to 64,000 people, more than half the characteristics of the ideal leader are “feminine” — here are the top 10 “feminine” leadership qualities of the ideal leader.

  • Connectedness: Form/maintain human connections.
  • Humility: Listening, learning, sharing credit.
  • Candor: Willingness to speak openly and honestly.
  • Patience: Recognize that some solutions emerge slowly.
  • Empathy: Sensitivity to others that promotes understanding.
  • Trustworthiness: Track record and character that inspires confidence.
  • Openness: Being receptive to all people and concepts.
  • Flexibility: Ability to change and adapt as circumstances require.
  • Vulnerability: The courage to be human and make mistakes.
  • Balance: A well-rounded sense of purpose.

What’s really going on here? Are global citizens become reverse-sexists? Hardly. Unfortunately, the percentage of women in leadership has barely budged in the last 10 years (roughly 15%, except CEOs, which is 4% in the U.S.). Other stats that speak to our cultural regard for women, such as rates of sexual and domestic violence, remain frighteningly high. No, the people of the world really have a simple request.

 The secret sauce that people so desperately seek in their leaders is nothing more than emotional intelligence.

 So ask yourself and the women and men you work with, what could we accomplish if we left our heroes at the comic store and decided that in the real world of leadership, it’s time to grow up?

 Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business cultures by design that integrate the lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor  to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.