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March 13, 1993

BASE Jumping Off Skyscrapers: Leadership Guidance from the Dark Knight

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When I was a kid, one of my heroes was Batman. I read Batman comic books until the pages came apart. Every Saturday morning I raced into the living room to watch cartoons and to see Batman save Gotham City from the evil schemes of the wily Joker. Batman always beat The Joker the same way: with the “WHAM! BAM! KAPOW!” of his black-gloved bat-fists.

Batman duked it out with the best of them, and, unlike most other superheroes, he did it without any superpowers—no X-ray vision, no superhuman strength, no spider webs, no swimming like a dolphin or flying like an eagle. Instead, he got by on his work ethic, wit, intelligence, and technology.

Batman was and is the ultimate Renaissance Man. He knows how to fly an airplane. He’s an expert driver, regardless of the vehicle type or its horsepower. He knows chemistry, finance, biology, physics, history, art, and literature. He’s a speed-reader with a photographic memory. His intuition works better than a million-dollar alarm system, and his moral compass always points toward right over wrong.

And if he can’t outwit his opponents or beat them with his gadgets, he can always fall back on his expertise in the martial arts. “WHAM! BAM! KAPOW!”

On the surface, it appears Batman somehow manages to achieve the impossible: being omni-competent. He stares down one of life’s greatest enemies, with the unrelenting pressure to be all, know all, and do all—without flinching.

We idolize Batman because he was somehow able to be all things to all people. In Christopher Nolan’s most recent interpretation of the shadowy figure, we find a billionaire philanthropist playboy who masquerades as a caped crusader—defeating the bad guys with wit, technology, and determination. He can BASE jump off skyscrapers, develop new weaponry, and execute his vision for justice. We all want to be that type of leader.

But we quickly realize that we can’t be experts in six disparate disciplines. And yet, the shrinking corporate landscape demands more and more from its executives.

Leaders in the twenty-first century understand all too well the pressure to be all, know all, and do all. We understand that what “got us here” might not “keep us here,” because we know that “new” and “different” reign supreme, and for good reason. We know last year’s results sit in the archives. So we glance into the superhero mirror and yearn for more tricks, tips, and tools. And staring back at us are two conflicting realities: 1) the things we don’t do well might cost us our jobs, and 2) we will never do everything equally well.

We hold our breath and hope we can reinvent ourselves like Batman does in each new movie. Only we don’t have brilliant directors scripting our every move. The responsibility to grow, to develop, and to discover the appropriate leadership qualities rests squarely on our shoulders.

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