Not everybody is attracted to or fascinated by superheroes, those imaginary characters we see and read about in comic books, cartoons, television, and movies. But for those who do, the reason for such attraction or fascination goes much deeper than an age or gender explanation. What draws us to embrace the idea of superheroes, and why is the answer relevant to the public and private sector workforce?
Superheroes, regardless of the communication media or genre in which they are presented, feed a deep-seated psychological need for those who do not have control over important aspects of their life. Superheroes allow us—by vicariously participating in a narrative, written, oral, or visual—to feel the satisfaction of having control over the negative factors influencing our life. Superheroes are a manifestation of this urge; they are one possible extension of what having control would or could look like. However, they are not particularly helpful in managing our life as their existence is so disconnected from the individual capabilities of our life that real people cannot emulate what superheroes do. Companies and authors who design and construct superheroes know this. This principle is also applied in marketing applications.
Similarly, leaders who behave in such a way that their powers appear to control their environment in an opposite way relative to our own inability have the same attraction. Institutionally, we look to leaders to solve all problems, or at least all difficult problems, just like we gain emotional satisfaction to our ego from the imaginary superhero. But here is the counterintuitive downside to superheroes, and fictionalizing real leaders in the same way. When we give up ownership of the possible mechanisms to solve problems we experience—problems that we are in the midst of—such that only an imagined fiction or unrealistic expectation can solve, we lose even more control of our environment and pretty well ensure that the problem we want solved does not get solved.
We enter a fantasyland built around our own creation. Successful science fiction superheroes do just that, as any good novel does. But reading a novel or watching a movie is not part of the organizational engagement process—like crossing boundaries and collaboration across hierarchical levels—necessary to be successful in reaching goals. Taking part in these engagements can be risky to one’s personal and professional integrity and career. But, are you willing to be satisfied with the alternative, viewing the world through a superhero lens? I think taking the risk makes us stronger and more capable.