TOP TEN: Under-Appreciated Team Leaders
Or – “Why The Best Leaders Aren’t Always Obvious…”
I’m a firm believer that it’s never a good idea to try and fully apply real world thought processes to the adventures of our four-color imaginary friends. (Faithful Spoilerites who pay attention will note that I break virtually all of my rules anyway, on a shockingly regular basis.) Recent noise out of Marvel Comics seems to indicate that a coming storyline will deal with a split in ranks the X-Men, leading to two factions, one of which will be led by Wolverine. The ridiculousness of Wolverine leading anything brought me to an important and faintly shocking revelation: Super-hero team leadership is very seldom about actually being a leader.
In comics fandom, there tend to be arguments over which is the “One True Blank.” My friend Dusty doesn’t see the point in an Avengers book without Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. There are long threads in our very own Major Spoilers forums about how the Justice League is only interesting and/or never interesting unless it’s the big seven founding heroes. We’re not here to undermine the likes of Cyclops, Mr. Fantastic or Batman, but it’s interesting to assess why we THINK certain characters are the best at running the show…
#10 – Conventional Wisdom Pick: Fairchild.
Underrated Pick: Grunge
Principle of Leadership: “Take Charge of Yourself. You’re responsible for what you think, feel, and do. Decide what your guiding values are and commit to live consistent with them.”
Percival Chang aka Grunge is a VERY smart young man, albeit occasionally an immature one. He’s also taken a strong leadership role in the post-apocalyptic meltdown of the Wildstorm Universe, proving himself in a crucible much more difficult than Gen 13’s usual commander-in-thong Caitlin Fairchild. His frat boy antics mask a shrewd ability to understand and adapt, and he serves the important role of morale officer for the team even in his earliest appearances, using his easy-going ways and humor to bolster his team’s spirits and allow them to better themselves. He is easily as book-smart as Caitlin, but much wiser and more aware of both himself and his fellows. A strong case can be made that, had he wished to, he could have easily taken command from the unsure Fairchild and his team would have been better off. Because he is truly a leader, this though would never have occurred to him…
The non-team Defenders are probably the most successful example of the “no rules, no charter, no official membership” school of super-team thought. Interestingly enough, the success of that motif has virtually NOTHING to do with any of the founding members. Namor personifies the noblesse oblige of royalty, Hulk’s child-like persona sought only companionship, Silver Surfer became notable only for his prolonged absences, and Doctor Strange’s leadership was neglectful at best. Initially encountering the team as an enemy, a member of the villainous Squadron Sinister, Nighthawk flipped on his villainous partners and became the glue that held the Defenders together, using his fortune, his resources and his ‘regular-guy-in-the-midst-of-the-cosmic folderal’ grounding to keep the non-team running. A businessman with a silver spoon upbringing, Kyle Richmond always focused on adapting, learning, improving himself (fitting for a character created as a Batman pastiche) and trying to figure out what would make the Defenders stronger. Without his hand on the tiller, the Defenders would have ceased to exist the first time Stephen got tired of Hulk emptying his pantry…
#8 – Conventional Wisdom Pick: Robin
Underrated Pick: Wonder Girl
Principle of Leadership: “Model the way – When the process gets tough, get your hands dirty. A boss tells others what to do; a leader shows it can be done.”
This one is a more difficult call, partly because Robin/Nightwing has always been so key to Titans operations, but also because Wonder Girl has been one of the worst victims of what could easily be called the ‘Crisis On Infinite Backstories.’ These days, it’s a given to say that members of the Bat-family can slip into an Edgar Allan Poe brooding thing at the drop of a hat but when it happened to Nightwing, it was catastrophic to the makeup of the Teen Titans. With Starfire off-planet and Cyborg indisposed, Donna Troy was forced to gather a makeshift team (the only prerequisite being a primarily red costume, apparently) that ended up facing the likes of Cheshire and Brother Blood, some of the Titans strongest names. While initially unsure of her footing, Donna manages to balance her team by taking the forefront in battle and using her own abilities to the fullest. She’ll never be Nightwing, but Nightwing never led a team with a heroin addict, a lunatic, an alienated Atlantean, an over-cautious Flash and Jason f’ing Todd, either. Getting those guys to do anything more complicated than order at McDonald’s is proof that Wonder Girl had more on her side than a lasso and Amazon muscle.
Conventional Wisdom Pick: Hawkeye
Underrated Pick: Baron Helmut Zemo
Principle of Leadership: “Employ your work group in accordance with its capabilities. Don’t burn out your team trying to look good. Know your limits.”
I expect to take some heat for this one (at least from you old guys who remember the 90’s), but hear me out. The initial concept of the Thunderbolts was to quickly fabricate a capable superhero team out of whole cloth, using only resourcefulness, good P.R. and super-powered chicanery. When the exercise was over, though, Zemo had made a team more stable and successful than the Masters of Evil ever were, even creating a couple of real hero-types (Songbird and Mach V are still active as heroes, while the Fixer and Moonstone hover in tweener mode) in the bargain. The original Thunderbolts found their greatest successes under his banner, and he did it all by knowing his team’s strengths and weaknesses, and plotting accordingly. The much-vaunted leadership of Hawkeye fell short at the same exercise by trying to shame the ‘Bolts into becoming better, falling prey to his own weaknesses in the bargain and ending up himself jailed for criminal behavior. Say what you will for Zemo as a scheming proto-Nazi $#!+head, he instinctively knew what people were capable of and brought out unseen aspects of all his team members.
Conventional Wisdom Pick: Harold “Hal” Jordan
Underrated Pick: Thaal Sinestro
Principle of Leadership: “Don’t be afraid to be unpopular.”
Another pick that might get me static, and probably a cheat to boot, as the Green Lantern Corps technically doesn’t have a leader in the traditional comic-book team sense. That said, when things get rough, field command always seems to devolve to Hal Jordan in his ceremonial role of ‘Greatest Green Lantern.’ This generally ends badly, especially in recent years where the fearlessness has overtaken a lot of Hal’s likability. Remember the assault on the Black Lantern halfway through Blackest Night? Remember how it was a colossal waste of time and nearly got everyone involved killed? Yeah, not so much with the strategery, our Hal… By contrast, Sinestro was able to create an army to rival the CENTURIES-OLD GLC in a matter of months by focusing on his goals and recruiting specifically to achieve them. Once he had assembled the members of his Sinestro Corps, Sinestro enforced a uniform dress code, a clear chain of command (with himself at the top, natch), and the knowledge that, while you didn’t have to agree with his administration, you were still bound to submit to it. No one in his right mind would support Thaal’s ill intentions, but by damn, you have to admire his organization skills.
Conventional Wisdom Pick: Cosmic Boy
Underrated Pick: Saturn Girl
Principle of Leadership: “The basis of good leadership is honorable character and selfless service to your organization. In your employees’ eyes, your leadership is everything you do that effects the organization’s objectives and their well-being.”
In recent years, the writers of the Legion have fallen into a number of traps that limit the series potential (Brainiac 5 as snipey jackass, too much focus on the invulnerable members, not enough Matter-Eater Lad) but one of the worst is the development of Cosmic Boy into a purple-jumpsuited composite of Captain America, Solomon and Gandhi. This characterization is worst in the Rebooted Legion of the 90’s, but carries over even today, and overshadows the character who is probably the strongest member of the LSH in any incarnation: Imra Ranzz. These days, she’s mostly seen in the role of vengeful wife and/or mother, but back in the day, ‘Iron-Butt’ Imra was a force to be reckoned with, a one-woman Legion who would brook no guff about her leadership skills. She took command of the Legion because she knew that someone would die, and if she couldn’t prevent it, she’d take the bullet herself, for the good of her team. Saturn Girl may have been the charter member of what Stephen calls “The Legion of Super-Bitches” (hell, she’s not just a client, she bought the company!) but her tenure as leader was the beginning of the team’s first Golden Age, a time of membership expansion, galactic acceptance and general ass-kickery, because she put the business of the Legion ahead of the wants and needs of Imra Ardeen, even when it meant personal sacrifice on her part.
Conventional Wisdom Pick: Optimus Prime
Underrated Pick: Ultra Magnus
Principle of Leadership: “Know your people and look out for their welfare. Don’t involve yourself in their personal lives.”
Put yourself in the shoes of Ultra Magnus for a moment. The most revered leader in your people’s history has been assassinated after more than FOUR MILLION YEARS of benevolently helming the ship of state. Your people, your entire culture is shattered, scattered, and outgunned by evil. Your race is reeling, fleeing from an overwhelming enemy assault. And on his deathbed, this iconic presence, this chosen one, this beatific presence has hand-picked YOU as his successor. But he didn’t give you the tool that helped him become that wise. And all his close advisors just got blowed up, too, depriving you of even his support staff. And only you know that you’re completely unqualified for the job at hand. How much would THAT suck? Nonetheless, Magnus took over as Autobot Supreme Commander, rallied his people, and protected the real chosen one until such time as the Matrix of Leadership sensed their darkest hour (or hours, really, since they pulled that chestnut out every other half-hour after the movie.) Ultra Magnus was given a big ol’ crap sandwich to eat, and he not only choked it down, he smiled at the camera and gave a big thumbs up for the people watching at home. When half his soldiers were wiped out, he couldn’t be overwhelmed by fear or sentimentality, he had a job to get done, and seeing as how the Decepticons would have detonated FOUR quarters of the ship, one has to say that he did a pretty good job. To quote the motivational poster: ‘So what if he’s not the chosen one? I suppose YOU are?’
Conventional Wisdom Pick: Cyclops
Underrated Pick: Storm
Principle of Leadership: “Develop a sense of responsibility among subordinates. The only way people learn to be responsible is to be given the chance to be responsible.”
Let’s talk for a moment about the early years of the All-New, All-Different X-Men. For a group ostensibly designed to fight against mutant prejudice, they sure hated each other a lot. Colossus was a godless commie. Wolverine was a loose cannon. Banshee was a two-dimensional stereotype. Nobody knew WHAT the hell Nightcrawler was… They were mostly grown, all seasoned by battle and harsh lives, and needed a strong central presence to bond them together. And Cyclops treated them all like a by-the-book captain in a Mel Gibson movie, or worse, like David Schwimmer in ‘Band of Brothers.’ By contrast, Storm’s leadership of the team allowed a more fluid presence in the field, channeling Wolverine’s inner samurai, Nightcrawler’s noble nature, Colossus unbreakable will and Kitty Pryde’s face-paint and legwarmers into a coherent whole by treating each of them as an irreducible whole. Where Slim Summers castigated, she commanded, and created an oddly nurturing environment, given her team’s tendency to be in brutal combat every five to seven pages. She interacted with each member on their own level, and didn’t shirk her own responsibilities when things went poorly. Most tellingly, when her powers deserted her, her teammates still had faith in her ability to lead them to victory. Scott Summers may be a born leader, but Ororo is in many ways a STRONGER one, having had to create her own opportunities and hone herself into the role.
Conventional Wisdom Pick: Captain America
Underrated Pick: The Wasp
Principle of Leadership: “Keep people informed. The greatest single breakdown in organizational dynamics is the lack of information flowing between and among those who need it. Everyone on your team should know everything you know about a project.”
It’s pretty much a given that Captain America leads the Avengers, even when he’s not the leader. Captain Marvel II had to deal with that. Iron Man chafed badly when he realized the truth. Hawkeye’s career is practically DEFINED by that reality. And yet, when Janet Van Dyne was Avengers chairperson, nobody questioned who was in charge. Even in those moments where the super-soldier took control of the battlefield, he did it because The Wasp allowed it for the good of the team. The Wasp’s election to leadership was met with disbelief, but she quickly turned her foes expectations against her, shepherding her Avengers through possibly their greatest crisis not involving Skrulls: the occupation of Avengers mansion by the Masters of Evil. With her strongman beaten half to death, her warlord broken by an ancient foe, her membership scattered, she assembled a makeshift team nearly as impressive as the official Avengers. It’s telling that, when Kang and/or Immortus brought together a random group of Avengers through time and space, Janet naturally stepped into a leadership role and made it work through clear communication and a natural charisma. Janet Van Dyne is the kind of team leader I would want to serve under, bringing together heroes and making them BETTER for her experience and leadership.
Conventional Wisdom Pick: Superman
Underrated Pick: Aquaman
Principle of Leadership: “Train as a team. Sports teams practice together. Why shouldn’t business teams do the same?”
Yeah, The Detroit League is #1 on this list. Learn to deal, and listen while the fat man lays down some knowledge.,, The Justice League of America was, for 20 years, an exercise in overkill. To send the seven core members or the titanic satellite-era roster against the likes of T.O. Morrow or Amos Fortune was akin to shooting rabbits with a wrist-mounted laser cannon. It wasn’t so much a triumph of a teamwork as it was small groups or even individual heroes who made the difference in most of their cases. But when those high-powered big guns started flaking out on their JLA duties, it became clear that the whole was not greater than the sum of it’s ungodly powerful parts. Some people mock Aquaman for believing that Vixen, Steel, and a breakdancer from inner-city Michigan could replace Superman, The Flash and Wonder Woman. But think about what his actions really meant. In his eyes, the Justice League as it had been ended long before Arthur made his unilateral decision to disband. Batman had quit. Superman was never around. Green Lantern was banished to space. What our Mr. Curry did here was cut-and-dried 21st century futurism, seeking out the heroes who would be the heavy hitters of tomorrow and bringing them together with seasoned veterans who could help mold them into those roles. Aquaman narrowed the team’s focus, brought them to live together, and forced these callow punks to really figure out what the legacy of the Justice League was and is. It’s sad that only Vixen lived long enough to fulfill that potential (though Gypsy is still around, and could still surprise us) but it’s really startling to realize how seldom superheroes actually even CONSIDER the future or the ramifications of their high-impact lifestyle. Aquaman tried to forge tomorrow’s sterling silver out of base earth, and even though he may not have achieved a 100% success rate, you can’t fault his methodology or his guts.
HONORABLE MENTION: Stephen Schleicher
You have to admire anybody who can ramrod an operation like Major Spoilers, hold down a very demanding day job and consistently get quality work out of continuity-addled ADD fanboys like– OOH! Mini-Truckin’ Magazine!!
Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: What is it about the modern comic book world that makes so many writers recast yesterday’s strong leaders (Doctor Strange, The Chief, Iron Man, et al) as Machiavellian dick-cheeses?