Leadership Lessons Learned from Black Panther



Please note: this article contains spoilers.

Marvel is certainly benefiting from the effective application of the return on luck principle described in Great by Choice by Jim Collins which states that the most effective companies are not inherently gifted with better luck than that of their peers, they just make more of the luck they receive. By effectively executing the projects that had to work such as the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers franchises, Marvel earned the goodwill to make winning bets out of movies that looked to be far from sure things on paper (Thor I-III, Guardians of the Galaxy I-II, Dr. Strange, Ant Man, and Black Panther). Marvel is now reaping the rewards for excellent execution and making smart bets with a comic book movie that with over $500 million in ticket sales in just two weeks has become a movement!

The synopsis of the film goes: After the death of his father, T'Challa returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. When a powerful enemy suddenly reappears, T'Challa's mettle as king -- and as Black Panther -- gets tested when he's drawn into a conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people.

This movie operates on so many levels that it has spawned hundreds of thought pieces. As seen solely through the lens of leadership, however, Black Panther might be a cautionary tale about the consequences of fear-based decision making. But this movie is also very much about the power of servant leadership to inspire greatness in both the leader and the organization, enterprise, and nation as a whole.

There is always a greatest good worth fighting for.

With this thought in mind, allow me to present six key leadership lessons gleaned from this enthralling epic film.

  1. Ignoring problems does not make them go away: After King T'Chaka makes the conscious choice to strand his brother N'Jobu's son in Oakland after N'Jobu's betrayal, he gives little consideration to the future consequences of his actions. But the gravity of his mistake becomes painfully clear when Erik Killmonger returns to reclaim his homeland. It is also unfortunate that in the spiritual plane meeting between T'Chaka and T'Challa later in the film, T'Chaka doubles down on his bad decision instead of admitting his error in judgement. Carefully considering and weighing the consequences of decisions is one of the primary roles of a leader. You must confront the brutal facts of the situation and try to make decisions that are guided by a core set of enduring positive values while identifying the likely short, medium, and long-term implications of your resolutions. Time will ultimately tell if you made the right call or not - and if it should turn out that you were wrong, admit your mistakes and more importantly work to rectify them.

  2. Leadership succession is critical: With royalty (and government), leadership succession is known well in advance of any possible negative circumstances that could displace the incumbent (king, president, leader). In Captain America: Civil War, King T'Chaka is killed by the villain Helmut Zemo which results in the immediate succession of T'Chaka to the Wakandan throne. Clear succession is critical to business continuity. And it is the responsibility of leaders to hire, develop, and nurture talents that can one day occupy critical roles. Visibility into this succession plan is also crucial to be able to move at pace should leadership positions open suddenly due to the instant uncertainty that occurs in an organization when a leadership position is vacated. The key word inherent in succession is "success" meaning that those next up to lead must already possess the tangible and intangible qualities that will ultimately lead to success in their new post. But succession does not mean "immediate success". Every new leader must go on a journey to become the best version of themselves which brings us to the next lesson...

  3. Leaders are grown, not born: Even though he was the rightful successor to the mantle of King and Black Panther, Wakandan tradition dictated that T'Challa face any who should oppose his ascension to the throne. And it is this journey from the first challenge by M'Baku to his later battles versus his cousin Erik Killmonger that result in T'Challa ultimately learning what kind of leader he wishes to be. Understand that a big part of being an effective leader is determined by how well you respond to challenges and failure. Rarely is ultimate success achieved on the first go-around, so it's important to take each stumble and fall for what it is - opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow stronger. This is what it means to "fail forward" - to get knocked down and keep getting up and going at it again and again. To know what you know, what you need to know, and what you don't know and diligently work to maximize the known and mitigate the unknown. It is this commitment to continuous improvement combined with an indomitable will that forges the greatest leaders.

  4. A leader is only as good as his/her team: Once T'Challa defeats M'Baku in ritual combat he is officially sworn in as King. And it is at this point that we experience the full capability of his leadership council. He is surrounded by loyalty, experience, raw talent, and strength. He has a very capable confidante and partner in Nakia; a technology wiz kid in younger sister Shuri; a powerful general who protects the throne in Okoye; a world-wise mentor in elder Zuri; and the person who has nurtured his excellence from birth in his mother Ramonda. He listens to his council, serves the will of his council, and is ultimately saved by his council. No matter how ambitious you may be - without the right team of capable and strong people around you, your progress will be limited. Identify the qualities beyond mere intellectual pedigree (such as work-ethic, shared passion, and solution-orientation) that you work best with and don't take any shortcuts in hiring and acquiring these attributes in those whom you surround yourself. Then work to transform this group of individuals into a high-performance team that is empowered by your brand of servant leadership. By serving and supporting them to achieve their goals you will ultimately achieve your own.

  5. Listen to the council, but know when to make the call: We get to witness the Wakandan leadership tradition of the council when T'Challa learns that long-time Wakandan enemy Ulysses Klaue has resurfaced in South Korea. He listens to key voices in his inner circle both for and against the action to pursue Klaue and is swayed by the passion of one of his closet allies W'kabi, ultimately because T'Challa wants to demonstrate that he is a king of a different breed than his father. Unfortunately, after he is unsuccessful and Killmonger delivers Klaue, W'kabi quickly abandons his long-term friend and backs the usurper. Take the time to consider what is driving you to take a certain course of action before moving forward. It is important to prove yourself as a new leader, but you will earn more credibility from taking the time to learn and consider multiple viewpoints and gain crucial context than by leaping to action. Remember that you are ultimately accountable for the consequences of any decision taken under your leadership so it is crucial to balance what your head, heart, and gut tells you is right. Sometimes, that means going against the grain and advice and doing what feels most correct to you especially in the early days of your tenure when you don't have enough of the facts to make an informed judgement.

  6. Everyone wins when knowledge is shared: Central to the conflict in this film is the notion that it is the shroud of secrecy that protects the Wakandan way of life. But by crafting an elaborate mote around their civilization they have in fact isolated themselves from the world instead of being active participants in shaping it. They sit back and watch from the sidelines as the African continent is plundered of both people and natural resources, as the world wars with itself, and as genocide happens in neighboring nations. This history of isolationism ultimately brings them into a collision course with Erik Killmonger and his vision of a Wakandan empire that will conquer the world and rewrite the history books. By the end of the movie, T'Challa realizes that the best way to protect Wakanda is by coming out of the shadows and helping to lead the world versus hiding from it. The best leaders prepare their organizations not only for the challenges of today but also those of the future by ensuring active participation in their industry's at large and reflecting the outside in perspective so that the enterprise constantly evolves in the right direction. They do this by challenging status quo thinking and pushing themselves and their teams out of their comfort zones. They construct learning organizations that can pilot new ideas, fail fast, and pivot their way to best in class status.

Overall, Black Panther was one of the most diverse, impactful, and resonant films produced by Marvel and is easily my new favorite (5 out of 5 stars).

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

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