Heroic leadership represented by business man in flight goggles and cape

The Superman Syndrome: A Recipe for Leadership Ruin

Superman has superpowers. But Superman has a fatal flaw: he can’t be all places at all times.

As a result, a lot of things don’t get done. Really important things, like feeding starving children, keeping airplanes from falling out of the sky, and finding a presidential candidate we can actually support.

When you can’t be all places at all times, no amount of super power will suffice. You need a different kind of power. People power.

People power is the ability to get things done through others. Really important things. It’s the ability to motivate and mobilize your people to do great work and expand the capacity of the organization you serve beyond what you can accomplish as a solitary person.

In short, people power is leadership in action.

This point is so important that best-selling authors Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan starkly state in Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, “Getting things done through others is a fundamental leadership skill. Indeed, if you can’t do it, you’re not leading.”

That’s right. You’re. Not. Leading.

Leaders who lead like superman—using their super powers to do as much as they possibly can—may look amazing on the surface, but they fail miserably. Why? They can’t scale the business, because everything in it is dependent on their personal presence. Superman’s fatal flaw.

And when you can’t scale the business, the business will ultimately collapse. In other words, Superman-like leaders are not leaders at all, but highly skilled individual contributors who don’t get things done through others, stunting the growth of their organization and diminishing its capacity.

What’s even worse, leaders who lead like superman end up burning themselves out. This occurs because—surprise, surprise—they’re not superman with super powers. They’re just ordinary human beings wearing tights and a cape. Any ordinary human being trying to do everything themselves will fail. It’s a recipe for ruin.

People power, however, is available to any leader willing to ask (and answer) this critical question, “How do I light a fire in someone’s soul?” For when you know the answer to that question, you know how to motivate and mobilize people to do great work. And when they do great work, you get great results. That’s people power in full force.

While the answer to this question could go on for pages and pages, here are three fundamentals to get you started: trust, purpose, and fit.


The first and fundamental secret about all human behavior is that people follow leaders they trust.

Those of us in leadership, especially those of us afflicted with the Superman Syndrome, somehow believe that people follow us because of our great wisdom, incredible talent, or impressive resume. But that is not the case.

People follow us when they believe in us and will continue to do so willingly when that belief is validated over time. Trust starts (and ends) at one fundamental place: character.

Character means you’re a person of your word: you do what you say you’ll do. It means others can depend on you, and you’d never ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. Character means that you act this way when things are going well and when things are going poorly, when you’re having a good day and when you’re having a bad one.

Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden once wrote, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one’s watching.” Wise words from the Wizard of Westwood. That’s the point, isn’t it? Character is not dependent on the public eye to perform. It acts consistently with its core values, even in private, and in doing so increases people power by the truckload.


The second secret to getting things done through others and curing yourself from the Superman Syndrome is purpose. Purpose, as with trust, lights a fire in someone’s soul and unleashes their passion to do great work.

This happens because all of us at our very core want to contribute to a cause that’s bigger than ourselves. Unlike robots, we need a reason for the things we do. The bigger the reason, the more we’re willing do.

When people are connected to a cause they believe in, it gives them that reason. No longer are they pushing a big rock up a tall mountain, like the cursed god Sisyphus, but they’re doing something that matters, work that makes a difference.

This is Southwest making travel fun. This is Nike making life an adventure. This is Apple making technology simple and elegant.

“The authentic way to increase shareholder value is with a purpose that inspires employees to create innovative products and provide superior service to customers.” writes former Medtronic CEO, Bill George, in Authentic Leadership. “When employees believe their work has a deeper meaning, their results will vastly exceed those who only use their minds and their bodies.” Purpose, too, provides leaders with people power because it unleashes a vast reservoir of passion that lies untapped inside our soul.


A bird is born to fly. A fish is born to swim. The talent for the task is present in these animals, and, as result, a bird flies high, a fish swims fast. Naturally. Effortlessly.

No pushy manager must be present to make this happen. No cushy compensation plan must be in place to keep it happening. Birds fly and fish swim for the pure joy of the experience.

The final secret to getting things done through others is fit.

Leaders with people power understand this dynamic and work hard to align the talent and tasks of the people who work for them. Or, in the words of Jim Collins, “getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.”

Fit then leads for you, getting things done through others almost miraculously.

When talent and task are aligned, people work for the pure joy of the job. In fact, it feels more like play than work at all. They go the extra mile, not because they’re forced to, but because they want to. A fire’s burning inside them that mere time can’t put out.

Turn In Your Cape and Take Off Your Tights

When people trust you as a leader, are working for a purpose they believe in deeply, doing that for which they are uniquely gifted, you possess people power. There’s nothing that can stand in your way.

So it’s time to turn in your cape.

It’s time to take off your tights (They didn’t fit very well anyway).

And it’s time to stop pretending you’re a super hero with super powers and learn how to become a real leader with people power. A leader who gets things done through others.

The difference you’ll experience as a result will be nothing short of transformational, for both you and the organization you serve.

READ MORE: Why Should Anyone Trust You as a Leader? The Truth About Trust


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