Leadership Lessons from Joker


Please note: this article contains spoilers.


Batman's rogue's gallery is known throughout the comic book world to be one of the most formidible, and the crown jewel of this cast of nefarious ne´er do wells is of course the Clown Prince of Crime aka The Joker. DC Comics is reinventing their extended universe strategy to include standalone films such as this one that are not necessarily connected to the rest of their movies. Whether that plan will lead to Marvel-level success is still up in the air. What is not debatable, however is that Todd Phillip's Joker is making a ton of noise and money at the global box office.


The synopsis of the film goes:  In Gotham City, mentally-troubled comedian Arthur Fleck is disregarded and mistreated by society. He then embarks on a downward spiral of revolution and bloody crime. This path brings him face-to-face with his alter-ego: "The Joker".


This disturbing descent into madness (or extreme clarity) is carried on the back of impressive direction and a tour de force performance by Joaquim Phoenix even if the story is flawed. As a character study of people on the margins of society, Joker has a lot to say about the dangers of alienation and untreated mental illness. In terms of leadership, however, this movie is very much about the importance of connection and environment in helping people self-actualize. As Howard Zinn once said:

To ward off alienation and gloom, it is only necessary to remember the unremembered heroes of the past, and to look around us for the unnoticed heroes of the present.

With this thought in mind, allow me to present five leadership lessons gleaned from this dark character study.


1.    Bullies create worse bullies: At the film's inception Arthur Fleck is working as a clown for hire and one of his jobs is as sign twirler for a store going out of business. A group of kids steal his sign and then brutally beat him down. He in turn takes this beating out on a group of young Wall Street execs harassing him on a train by executing them. Leadership Lesson: As a leader you are in charge of the culture that pervades within your organization. If you allow a culture of harassment to persist, this will create what's known as a "toxic environment" where bad actors are rewarded despite their bad behaviors. No one thrives in this type of environment and bad actors must be swiftly removed. Your people will judge you by how fast or slow you respond to these types of serious organizational issues.

2.    Self-deception is the worst kind: Arthur's mother, Penny, who is later revealed to be mentally delusional, maintains for the running length of the film that she and Thomas Wayne (yes - Bruce's father) were lovers and that Arthur is actually Wayne's illegitimate son. When Arthur finally finds out the opposite truth about his life, he finally gives himself over to the darkness rising within. Leadership Lesson: False optimism and extreme fatalism are the enemies of action in business. Confronting brutal facts and root cause, however, is the lifeblood of progress. Create an environment where people report the facts and really seek to solve underlying issues instead of seeing the world through either rose or midnight tinted lenses.

3.    Courage cures: Arthur has a dream of becoming a stand-up comedian like his idol late -night talkshow host Murray Franklin and even finds the inner fortitude to attend an ill-fated open mic. He does this despite not having anyone rooting for him or believing in him other than his deluded mother. Had he been seen as courageous for trying something new and not ridiculed for being different, the film might not have taken its last dark turn. Leadership Lesson: Your people will only try new things to the extent that they are encouraged and rewarded for doing so. The attempt matters far more than the outcome and you as the leader must consistently push for these attempts to break from the status quo. This is the heart of innovation.

4.    Anarchy is avoidable: Gotham city descends into chaos because the wealthy and powerful have turned blind eyes to the needs of their population. It is in this context that the Joker (and later Batman) are born. Because those who are neediest are judged as clowns, by the end of the movie the joke ends up being on those in power. Leadership Lesson: Power based leaders are often energy absorbers who create a sense of desperation and depression in their subordinates. Over time, this negativity can fester until productivity becomes impossible and then the leadership must be wholesale removed in attempts to refresh the culture (see Uber circa 2015). Servant leaders however, are much more in tune with and adept at addressing the needs of the people in their organization. No one is coddled but problems are resolved more efficiently which creates a sense of continuous improvement and progress within the company. Bosses create anarchy - leaders create achievement.

5.    Kindness matters: Arthur is desperate for human kindness and connection. So desperate in fact that he invents a relationship with a neighbor that never actually happens. In his closing monologue on Murray's talk show he insists it is this lack of kindness in the people of Gotham that led him to the heinous murders he has committed throughout the film. and his lack of regret for these actions. Leadership Lesson: Companies have the ability to be ideal versions of society where the best of humanity is on display. Because the point of modern commerce is creating opportunities and enabling productivity - employee engagement begins to become that much more important as the engine of progress. When people on teams work to understand and accept and even leverage each others differences versus judging differences as detrimental, high performance is truly enabled. Your role as leader is to be the ultimate example of the behaviors you expect in each employee with kindness being required and rewarded. This is how you begin to create a differentiated workplace capable of spectacular results.


Overall, Joker was disappointing in that I disagreed with the back story for one of Batman's key antagonists. In my conception, Joker was not broken by society so much as someone who sees through the societal constructs and aims to liberate people from false rule even if it leads to pure anarchy. That being said, Joaquim Phoenix's performance alone is worth 5 stars given the material he had to work with (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.


Omar L. Harris is Associate Vice-President and Country Manager for Allergan PLC in Brazil. He is the author of Leader Board: The DNA of High-Performance Teams available for purchase in ebook or print on Amazon.com. Please follow him on instagramtwitter, and/or LinkedIn for more information and engagement.

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