For the first time in three years, I had the opportunity last month to attend one of my favorite autumn events, the annual New York Comic Con. The convention was first held in 2006, and I have had the pleasure of going, before the pandemic anyway, yearly for about 10 years.
Now, if you have never gone to a comic convention, it’s worth noting that people attend for many reasons (much like any convention or conference). Some attend to get dressed up like characters from their favorite comic, movie, television show, cultural reference, etc. Others go to take pictures of said people dressing up. Still others go to see the newest gear, tech and art from big and small companies, and others go to collect antiques and older items. Of course, many attend to see celebrities, both mainstream and obscure. Truly, it serves as an event for anyone.
While I went to take pictures and add to my Spider-Man comic collection (I picked up a few issues that I needed), I also took some time to think about the unexpected leadership lessons that can be gained from an event like this because, why not?
Lead (and sometimes leave) early
Years ago, I learned my first unexpected leadership lesson: If I wanted to chart my own course through the event rather than be pushed along with the crowd, then I had to arrive early — and be willing to leave early as well. Logistically, with fewer people, stress levels are less, attendees are more open to talking and taking pictures, and it is easier to get around.
As leaders, early moves can be challenging and can require more work on the front end (just like having to get up earlier to arrive early at NYCC). But in the end, using time to our advantage provides us with a greater opportunity to think, act and reflect. It also allows us to turn continued work over to others who may be even better prepared for the work and/or might benefit from skill-building in a given area.
We arrived at NYCC a short bit after it opened and exited a little after lunch. By the time we left, the halls were jammed. Timing can sometimes be everything.
Set the table (and let others select from the menu)
In most cases, I’ve learned that when I offer choice and context and get out of the way, those I work with are more appreciative and gain more than when I force the direction we go. Sometimes, that simply isn’t possible. During the pandemic, decisions had to be made, and we all know that even in the best of times, choice cannot always be offered.
That said, NYCC provided me with further evidence that setting a table, so to speak, and letting people pick from the menu of opportunities is generally the best course of action for a leader to take. In the case of the convention, with so many booths for different companies available, an attendee could really spend their time exploring whatever their interests were.
We visited a really cool comic bidding company, a small studio where the lead artist was drawing characters and displaying them on a big screen, a booth run by Marvel, a graphic novel company and a bunch of other retailers. NYCC set the map and selected the vendors, while we chose where to go and what to explore. And, partly because of that, our learning and experience from the event was more beneficial because we led it ourselves.
Give space so others can come close
For us, going to NYCC is a family event. Well, almost a family event, because my wife doesn’t go. A big goal for me has been to get her to join us one year, and every year we come closer to meeting that goal. This year, for the first time, she didn’t say no right away, so I thought she might come. That didn’t happen, unfortunately, but I feel strongly that she may join us next year, and I have no doubt once she goes she will be interested in continuing to do so.
What’s the unexpected leadership lesson here? Simply that when we are serving as the best leaders we can be, we recognize that sometimes people just need space and time to see the benefits of taking a certain action. Much like setting the table and letting people choose, giving people space can sometimes feel like we are giving up control for an unknown end result. That would be true. But if the hoped-for outcome is true engagement and happiness, then we have to realize that letting people map their own decision-making and come to their own conclusions is some of the best leadership that exists.
Think small to think big
My daughters loved Comic Con this year. It had been a few years since they last attended, and at ages 12 and 9, they are the perfect age to really start enjoying the event.
Some of their favorite parts of the day were incredibly small in scope. For instance, they loved the train ride into the city and the subway (their first in a little over two years), had a ton of fun picking out lunch from the vendors and really liked buying some artwork from one of the smaller artist booths at the event. The scope of NYCC and the big retailers were interesting for them but not as impactful as I might have first thought.
This made me think about the value of celebrating small wins and seeing the joy in all things — another unexpected leadership lesson. Whether it is the first flowers blooming outside a school, a really interesting question from a student or colleague that everyone wants to explore, a competitive (and collaborative) sporting event or something else entirely, all of these small things are important to culture, community and the growth of us as leaders and of those we serve.
Peter Senge speaks to the importance of recognizing that slower is faster in his book “The Fifth Discipline.” A parallel idea could be that we have to be willing to think small to think big. If we have large goals in mind for the organizations we lead, then recognizing the small steps leading to meeting those large goals is an absolute necessity.
Going back to NYCC was an amazing experience, and the joy and energy was palpable for me, my kids and those present. It was great to be able to geek out and reflect on serving as a leader at the same time. Sometimes, what might seem as a nonleader event for each of us is precisely what we need to help us reframe and refocus our practice.
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Ende currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, “Professional Development That Sticks” and “Forces of Influence,” are available from ASCD. Connect with Ende on his website or on Twitter.