top of page

Leadership Lessons Learned from Captain America: Civil War

Please note: this article contains spoilers.

Marvel responded to DC's throwing the gauntlet (and kitchen sink) at audiences worldwide with Batman V Superman by launching their own superhero battle royale - Captain America: Civil War. The key difference between Marvel and DC's approaches to the superhero skirmish is that Marvel has been building up to this over the course of 12 previous films in a slow boil.

The synopsis of the film goes: Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The new status quo deeply divides members of the team. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sharply disagrees and supports oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must pick a side.

On the surface, Civil War is about the use (and abuse) of power. But this movie is also very much about what it means to be a team, a family, an organization dedicated to an ambitious and ultimately positive mission and how differences in opinion at the leadership level can ultimately undermine all the progress achieved and leave the group splintered and looking for direction. In that sense I found it to be a fantastic leadership case study.

A mission is only as healthy and attainable as its leadership is united and on the same page regarding the path forward to achieving it.

So with this thought in mind, allow me to present 5 key leadership lessons I gleaned from this megafilm.

  1. Accountability is everything: Every action has a consequence and it is the leader's job to accept the good and the bad that come from their choices. When leaders don't accept full accountability for the downsides of their decisions, someone else will step in and force that accountability upon them. The Avengers have been saving the world ever since Iron Man 1, however, there is little sense that they take accountability for the destruction left in the wake of their heroic deeds. Someone has to be accountable for the cleanup and rebuilding necessary when super powered individuals clash with super powered baddies. As a leader it's important to plan for the worst and hope for the best possible outcome and ultimately step up to the plate and own up to responsibility when things don't go according to plan - otherwise, you lose the good will the people have invested in you and your position.

  2. Honesty beats loyalty every time: Always telling the truth is hard. It takes a reservoir of inner courage and faith and a strong moral compass to tell it like it is regardless of the consequence. Captain America knows something about his best friend's involvement in the untimely demise of one of his Avenger mates' parents but he keeps this secret until it is literally too late. His loyalty to Bucky blinds him - and even though he is ultimately partially right about his friend's intentions and actions, he sacrifices the greater good of keeping his team united. Leader's often have pet causes and sometimes even get caught up playing favorites with their teams. This behavior will invariably result in the slow or quick implosion of your team. Your job as a leader is to treat everyone the same and use objective facts and measures to inform decisions. When emotions rule, the variability of results increases exponentially. The gut must be balanced out by head and heart.

  3. Trust is your greatest leadership asset: You've heard the phrase “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair”, right? The question is why. Why does all that goodwill go out the window the moment trust breaking behaviors come into the picture? It's because trust is like a mirror, reflecting back to us an image that we need to see to fully believe - but once that reflection is altered, it becomes difficult to ever see the perfect image we remembered from before again and therefore our belief diminishes. After the events of Civil War, I'm not sure if Iron Man will ever trust Captain America again. Just as after the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, it was probably difficult for the team to trust Iron man (with the key difference being that his mind was manipulated by Scarlett Witch in that film). But the simple fact is once trust breaks down, conflict is inevitable - and not the kind of productive conflict that drives high performing teams to overachieve. When trust is broken, the conflict awaiting you will be destructive to all your goals and objectives. That's why as a leader you have to guard the trust people place in you with your very life and not sacrifice it for anything.

  4. Vengeance is not productive: When someone offends, upsets, attacks, or undermines you it is very attractive to want to get them back. I think about the unproductive vengeance that fueled Steve Jobs to want to beat Microsoft in the 80's as an example of this unproductive rage. Ultimately he burned out his team and lost his job at the company he founded! In Civil War, Black Panther is primarily driven by the need for vengeance after his father is assassinated, but by the film's end he has realized that his quest has been far more destructive than productive. As leaders we must always question and calibrate our motivations behind why we do what we do. Are we in it for the RIGHT reasons or are you driven by more egotistical motivations?

  5. Forgiveness (and understanding) are divine: There are times when leaders must swallow their pride and recognize that they cannot achieve their goals alone. Yes, people will disappoint you at times, but each disappointment is an opportunity for advancement. With Avengers 3 and 4 coming up on the Marvel slate, Tony and Cap are going to have to reach a shared understanding and regain some level of mutual respect if the Avengers expect to have any chance against their greatest foe yet. True leaders never lose sight of the bigger picture - they have the self confidence and morale fortitude to forgive most behaviors and treat them as coaching opportunities for their people. And most importantly they recognize that they are not perfect either - someone had to forgive them once upon a time so they need to pay it forward, reconcile, and get back to business.

Overall, Captain America: Civil War was an exceedingly entertaining movie with excellent characterization, amazing globe-trotting action, great humor, and some important lessons (5 out of 5 stars from me).

What other leadership lessons did you glean from the film? Let us know in the comments below. And please give the article a share if you enjoyed and got anything out of it.

354 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page