Comic Book Leadership

comic book leadersShall I make yet another confession? Yes, I believe I shall.

I like comic books.

While I haven\’t been an active reader in years, I still love flipping through them at the bookstore. Recently my brother passed me a copy of a magazine that had an article about Marvel Comics (the company that made the movies for Spiderman, Wolverine, Hulk, Iron Man, etc.). The article focused on their editor in chief, Joe Quesada. I think there were some great leadership (and HR) tenets that were covered, and I\’ll share a few of them with you.

Leaders are humble, collaborative, and sincere

I never have that feeling that, “Hey, I control this universe.” For me, it\’s really more of a feeling of collaboration. It\’s the fun of getting up every morning and getting the opportunity to work with all of these creative people. Anyone who has worked with me-or works for me-will understand that. I didn\’t run the editorial department with an iron fist. I\’m really about collaboration, always looking for what\’s the best idea. I think it\’s impossible to run a universe like Marvel and just do it with a singular voice. You need to have everyone else\’s involvement to make it that much better. -Joe Quesada

Leaders connect with customers and staff

Even when decisions are controversial within Marvel, Executive Editor Tom Brevoort characterizes Quesada as the right man to mend fences, someone who operates in the spirit of fairness with everyone from creators to fans best interests at heart.

Leaders know the business

I\’ll take the heat—that\’s what I get paid for. Why not have fun with it at that point? […] Comics are supposed to be fun. It\’s not brain surgery. It\’s not politics and it\’s not economics. It\’s putting out entertainment and keeping people coming back. -Joe Quesada

Leaders pursue (and want to work with) A players

Part of the process of reinvigorating Marvel from its late ‘90s doldrums included bringing [all star] creators… into the Marvel fold while continuing to scout for artistic talent.

What do you think? I absolutely never thought I would open a comic magazine and find something that would thrill my little HR-lovin’ heart. I guess you never know!

7 thoughts on “Comic Book Leadership

  1. Steve Boese

    Love the post. I am a major comic book guy, and have been since I was a kid. Quesada is very well respected, and really by all accounts a great leader. I love the focus on finding and supporting the best ideas in the organization, then letting the creative people go. Great stuff.
    .-= Steve Boese´s last blog ..Do You Have $10? =-.

  2. justin locke

    well the question becomes why don’t more people do as he does? I encountered a similar experience in a parallel universe of playing in professional orchestras. the best conductors had all these traits. But then the question is, if the skills are publicly known, why do so many people lead poorly? I suspect part of it is in their training in hierarchy as opposed to collaboration. It is more than just a technical skill, it has a lot to do with core knowledge (as opposed to theory) of human nature, also emotional maturity which, sadly, is often lacking.

    Of course there is usually more to it than just one person when it succeeds. It helpful to have “higher ups” who do not create a bean-counting culture of covering one’s . . . mistakes. And some people of lesser ability believe their personal survival lies in creating fiefdoms rather than seeking the best team talent.

    again, there is much to be said for individual effort but i suspect some credit has to go to whoever is managing mr. quesada and giving him the leeway to do it right. this takes a tolerance for people who don’t obey standard procedure, and while the mission statement of most organizations says they do, in actual practice not every organization rewards individual initiative or risk-taking. Therein lies a big part of the fix.

  3. Victorio

    Hey Ben,

    Comics remind me of HR in several ways:

    1. Comics are a great medium which doesn’t get the full respect that it deserves. HR is a great profession that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

    2. Comics and HR come from humble (some would say cheap) beginnings.

    3. Love them or hate them, comics and HR have transformed themselves into creative and commercial enterprises.

    I love comics and it’s goo to see that a creative company like Marvel has the right person in place to help it remain successful. I agree with Justin in that the organization seems to be set-up in the right way to allow him to do his job well.

    Good post Ben!

    1. Ben Post author

      @Victorio, that response is a great one. I love the comparison. I can still remember sneaking my dad’s nice comics back when I was little. He had years and years worth of Superman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, etc. Now I cram in business books when I get the chance. Where did I go wrong? :-)

      @Justin, thanks for the comment! I agree completely. The article mentioned (wish I could have linked to it, but I couldn’t find it online) that he was surprised to have been given that kind of position for about 10 years now, and it quoted his own manager who was loading the positive comments on Quesada. I think they realized that they hired a gem and then tried to get out of his way to let him work. Great strategy. :-) Thanks again for dropping by!

      @Steve Hiring great people and getting out of their way. Definitely. Just like I said to Justin above, when you realize that you’ve hired someone who can really take the business to places you didn’t expect them to be able to, it may be a gamble to let them roll with it, but it looks like it’s paid off for Marvel. We have so much in common, and now we can add comics to the list. What’s next? :-)

  4. justin locke

    Well since we are on a roll talking about leadership and how to manage leaders, let me toss out one more thing:

    Your list of leadership attributes implies it, but me come out and emphasize one leadership attribute that rarely if ever gets directly mentioned, and that is… perception.

    In most workplaces, you are judged on performance. That means you are judged on what you do. How many people, running a performance review, ever ask the question, “what unusual new things did you perceive in the past year?”

    With all of the information and instruction floating around about “how to lead,” it is easy for the neophyte leader to feel that it is incumbent upon them to constantly ACT. They must DO. They must instruct. They must instill. They must guide.

    I saw this training relentlessly manifesting itself in second-rate conductors. Sadly, the more they frantically waved their baton in my face, all the while screaming out the phrase, “watch me!”, the less respect I had for them, and the less I produced for them. I was not inspired, I was annoyed. Why put my best stuff out for someone who is so concerned with how they look, that their perceptions are closed off? They aren’t going to hear it. It was sad, because they were doing everything they had been instructed to do– with great fervor– and it was actually getting a negative result.

    Conversely, the best leader/conductors I worked with were all about perception. They did very little, and they said even less. But you had this constant sense that they were observing you and looking at you, and appreciating what you were doing. They also had a highly developed awareness of the audience (read: customer base). The best ones (and you have heard of all them) were able to perceive capabilities and me that I never knew I had. Talk about instant inspiration.

    So let us look at what is rare here: the people who are managing Mr. Quesada do not see him as a generic categorized manager entity. They perceive that which is unusual. Many people in management don\’t want to perceive uniqueness, because if an employee goes from being a replaceable generic commodity to an indispensable necessity, that can lead the difficulty when it comes time to negotiating contracts. On the other hand, an awful lot of people will work for less money when they know their work is being appreciated.

    Perception takes a long time to develop. And other than myself, I\’m not sure I\’ve ever heard of a leadership training program that teaches it. But I don\’t want to go on believing that if it\’s not true, so please advise!


  5. Daniel Burton

    When I first became a production manager creating comics I had to make it a priority to change the culture. You simply can’t lead if you are involved in the actual production. Everything takes priority and nothing gets done. I made a habit of doing “nothing.” This made the team very happy because finally there was “nothing” being done from management. No yelling at workers to complete deadlines. No changing things on worthless corrections a million times. No cares about when you were working as long as the work got done. And the work did get done.

    Things go so much smoother if there is that separation between the administration and the creatives. You are that separation. The key to being good is being able to be the punching bag for both parties. Both want to take their frustrations out on the other party. You are the happy-go-lucky guy in the middle that is the liason for the two–being the ear to listen and taking the hits so the other two sides don’t get hit. Nothing good comes if that happens. Know what both sides want and give them each a good dose of what they want.

    I ended up getting fired because it is hard to change the culture of management that is set in its ways.

    1. Ben Post author

      Hey, Daniel! Thanks for the great comment. I can only imagine the difficulty of trying to play the middle between a creative team and a group of more structured managerial types. Illuminating!

Comments are closed.