Leadership Lessons Learned from Avengers: Infinity War



Please note: this article contains spoilers.

After 10 years and eighteen films, Marvel has arrived at the culminating event of the current iteration of its epic cinematic universe. One cannot help but be impressed by the combination of audacious vision, long-term planning, and excellent execution that has been on display up until this point. And with the biggest US and global box office opening in history, Marvel and Disney are continuing to blaze a path forward that every other studio would love to emulate. This train does not seem to be slowing any time soon.

The synopsis of the film goes: As the Avengers and their allies have continued to protect the world from threats too large for any one hero to handle, a new danger has emerged from the cosmic shadows: Thanos. A despot of intergalactic infamy, his goal is to collect all six Infinity Stones, artifacts of unimaginable power, and use them to inflict his twisted will on all of reality. Everything the Avengers have fought for has led up to this moment - the fate of Earth and existence itself has never been more uncertain.

This movie has a truly epic scope and incorporates so many different story lines that it may be difficult for the uninitiated to fully appreciate. Viewed through the unique perspective of leadership, Avengers: Infinity War deals with the dedication, focus, and sacrifice needed to achieve a goal. This movie is also very much about what it takes to win as a team. As football coach Bill Parcells once said,

A team divided against itself can break down any moment. The least bit of pressure or adversity will crack it apart.

With this thought in mind, allow me to present ten key leadership lessons gleaned from this intense and amazing film.

  1. Never lose sight of the mission: At the beginning of the film, the Avengers are all over the place, literally. While they own their role as Earth's mightiest defenders, they've lost cohesion and purpose as a team and are vulnerable to defeat. It's no coincidence that their biggest threat shows up exactly at this moment to challenge their strength. Thanos on the other hand has never lost site of his end game and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Leadership Lesson: No matter whether the team is just forming or already achieving high performance, the role of the leader is to continuously remind and reinforce the purpose and mission of the team. This purpose has to be bigger than any interpersonal conflicts, so big that people have to work together for the greater good.

  2. Accumulate allies: Because of all the internal strife in the Avengers, they have missed opportunities to consolidate as a group and even grow stronger by identifying like-minded individuals with similar goals. It is disappointing that somehow neither Tony Stark nor Thor has alerted the team to the presence of Dr. Strange before the Hulk's long fall through the bi-frost brings them together just in time. Had they been collaborating sooner, they may have found a way to beat Thanos before he was on their doorstep. They also would have learned of the Time Stone's existence much earlier and had a plan to protect it. Thanos, for all his strength, understands this principle and has the Children of Thanos by his side to execute the mission. Leadership Lesson: Often times to achieve our goals we must collaborate with skilled individuals and companies who operate alongside the team. Having a clear mission has an important side-effect of shining light into the capabilities already in house and the capabilities necessary to acquire in order to move forward.

  3. Keep the team together at all costs: Because the Infinity Stones are split across multiple locations (initially Time and Mind are on Earth, Space is with Loki, Soul is unknown, Power is with the Nova Corps, and Reality is in KNOWHERE), Thanos has to split up his own team in pursuit of them. The Avengers are also split up during the events of the film with Spider Man, Iron Man, and Dr. Strange trying to protect the Time Stone from capture; Thor, Rocket, and Groot going to get a new weapon for Thor; The rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy pursuing the Reality Stone in KNOWHERE; and everyone else on Earth to protect Vision and the Mind Stone. The issue is that this is not the result of careful planning by the Avengers, it is pure happenstance how team mates and allies are thrown together. If anything, it is representative of Thanos' knowledge that he can't face all the Avengers until he possesses at least 5 of the Infinity Stones. Leadership Lesson: There will always be more forces trying to pull your team apart than forces to keep them together which is why it is one of the most crucial roles of a leader to maintain team unity, harmony, and preparation to deal with the unknown issues and challenges that will inevitably come. A team that is together can navigate through most if not all challenges, but a team that is not will face nearly insurmountable odds to overcome.

  4. Find a way to contribute: After taking a beating by Thanos in space, Hulk refuses to manifest despite Bruce Banner's begging and pleading. This does not stop Banner from adding value, however, as during the battle in Wakanda he dons the Hulk Buster armor and becomes a major contributor on the battle field. Leadership Lesson: There may be moments when you cannot apply your strengths to solve a situation. It is in these moments that great team members still find a way to help the team win - even if it's simply by supporting and cheering on those team mates who are leading the charge. When everyone is focused on what's best for the team, individual egos fall aside, purpose is clarified, and achievement is all but assured.

  5. Apply emotional intelligence in high-pressure situations: Even though they have never worked together as a unit, necessity allows Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Spider Man, and The Guardians of the Galaxy to figure out a plan to defeat Thanos once he arrives on Titan in pursuit of the Time Stone. Unfortunately, Star Lord can't overcome his emotions when he learns of Gamora's death and he sabotages the plan in pursuit of personal vengeance. This single act more than any other results in Thanos attainment of the Time Stone which signals certain defeat for the Avengers. Leadership Lesson: Our lives are full of frustrations, betrayals big and small, and circumstances out of our control. Those who learn to control their emotions despite the external environment have mastered a skill that will allow them to move through difficult situations and remain focused on what truly matters. Those who cannot will see themselves fall short of goals again and again due to their inability to see the forest for the trees.

  6. Always build contingencies: There are members of the Avengers who are adept at contingency planning and this will certainly come in handy in Avengers 4. Specifically, Tony has continuously upgraded and reinforces his armor and tech for the unknown battles to come while Thor knows that having StormBreaker (his new weapon to harness energy) will be crucial to success in the battle versus Thanos. Dr. Strange uses the Time Stone to figure out the only successful way to defeat Thanos (although not in this movie); while Nick Fury has a big gun he's been holding for a moment like this when he presses the distress signal for Captain Marvel. Thanos also builds contingencies by capturing and not killing Nebula (just in case he needs to persuade Gamora to give him the Soul Stone's location). Leadership Lesson: Effective planning requires the ability to anticipate worst case scenarios and contemplate actions that will be immediately triggered should these events happen. Leaders who focus only on what could go right do themselves and their teams a disservice and will find it hard to pivot in time if something truly negative occurs.

  7. Will usually wins: There is a point beyond strength, teamwork, planning, and even execution where one's will to succeed comes into play. The reason why Thanos wins the day in this film is not because he's stronger, smarter, or more effective than the Avengers. It's because his will to succeed at his goal is so tremendous that he will not let anything or anyone stand in the way of his achievement. He overcomes the deaths of his entire team, murdering his daughter (who he professes to love), and significant injuries to his person on the path to his objective. Like Michael Jordan in the 4th quarter, Thanos just wants it more than the Avengers and puts it all on the line. Leadership Lesson: When leading a team, it is important to go beyond alignment and agreement and ensure that everyone truly believes that the mission is crucial and possible to achieve. When belief is present, it can compensate for lack of capability or even poor strategy. Leaders who can harness not only their teams capability but also engage their belief are leaders who almost always overachieve.

  8. Live to fight another day: Unified by a noble purpose, this group of heroes fighting together for the first-time almost pulls it off to defeat their greatest threat. Despite the tremendous losses, what's important in the aftermath of the Infinity War is that the remaining team members regroup, learn from failure, and stay together. And this is Thanos' great strategic error in my opinion, because by leaving half the heroes still alive, he is therefore inviting further conflict since they don't call themselves Avengers for nothing! Leadership Lesson: There are moments when despite all your best efforts you take a serious loss. The question is whether or not you can fail forward from this loss - take the necessary lessons in stride and get back up to try again. In this way, there is no such thing as losing or winning, merely learning - either from success or failure. Embedding this mindset into your team will prepare you for long term sustainable growth.

  9. Patience is a virtue, planning is divine: I see a strong parallel between the brilliant way Marvel has weaved their storytelling together for this grand epic culmination and the way Thanos has patiently planned out his Infinity War. It's impressive how he has allowed the heroes to expose the Infinity Stones one by one (without realizing their import) and allowing them to feel invincible and then crumble under the weight of their own egos. His patience is strategic which makes it all the more deadly when he finally strikes. Playing the long game guarantees that before he takes decisive action 1) he knows where 5 of the 6 Infinity Stones are located and 2) he knows the strengths and more importantly weaknesses of those holding them. Leadership Lesson: We live in a world of instant gratification but the true spoils go to those who can look beyond today's need and/or crises, map out the future, and then manifest this reality via dogged discipline, constant learning, and effective execution. Challenge yourself and your teams to think both short and long term and ensure that there are rewards and incentives to pursue sustainable success in addition to momentary success.

  10. Rise to the challenge: The most inspiring thing the heroes do in this film is get over their differences and learn to work together in real-time for the good of the universe. They fight with gusto and some of them nearly sacrifice everything to keep the Infinity Stones out of Thanos' gauntlet. And that's ultimately what heroes do - they rise to the occasion. The more difficult the obstacle the harder they work to push it out of the way. Leadership Lesson: There's a phrase I like which says, "Stay Ready so you don't have to Get Ready." This means that great leaders and teams remain at a constant state of vigilance and eliminate complacency from their day to day actions. They may take time off and even relax, but they are always ready to make things happen when they need to happen. The other thing high-performance teams and leaders do is constantly raise the bar on themselves in terms of achievement. They are never satisfied with merely winning today, they demand the best of themselves on a regular basis so that excellence becomes a habit not something they even think about consciously.

Overall, Avengers: Infinity War executed its ambitious vision which was to combine almost all of the key Marvel heroes in a compelling, binding narrative with exceptionally high stakes, while also keeping fans on the edge of their seats for the next slate of films (4 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 thumbs up and share with your network if you enjoyed and got anything out of it.

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