“Fate rarely calls upon us at the moment of our choosing.”
Early in my tenure as Commanding General of NATO Air Training Command—Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to sit down with my aide-de-camp, Sergio Fontanez (Twitter: #SleepySerge). Our conversation that day quickly turned from routine matters of scheduling, required phone calls, and the necessary events of the day into a conversation about Serge’s fascination with the power of Superheroes to teach us valuable life and leadership lessons.
Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical at first. Call it ignorance or lack of imagination, I have to admit I never really gave much thought to what those colorful characters with larger than life capabilities could teach us. Nor had I really considered why superheroes are particularly important to children. So over the next couple hours, Sergio took me to school about the deeper symbolism behind those characters I’ve known since I was five years old—Batman, Superman, Spider Man, and a host of others. In the process, he awakened a deeper understanding and appreciation for how the subtle but significant message communicated by these superheroes examples can liberate each of us, old and young alike, to become the very best version of ourselves possible.
Superhero In All Of Us
Since their inception in the 1930’s, superheroes have always fascinated children. And why not? After all, stories of larger than life heroes saving the day and making our world a little bit safer, better and brighter stirs something in us. Their example liberates children’s imagination and inspires them to want to do the right thing, to strive to add value to their surroundings, and to try and leave the world better than they found it.
In many ways, Superheroes give children a glimpse of what it looks like to attain their full potential. They remind young people how we each possess a special talent or skill that, if we choose, can be selflessly employed in some new or novel way to overcome obstacles, promote progress and remind us we are all powerful in our own right.
“…we are all powerful in our own right.”
Alongside parents and teachers, superheroes also teach children other important life lessons. For example, they show children a way of life that is morally good. These heroes do the right thing, not for personal gain, but because it is the right thing to do. Spiderman fights crime not expecting a reward, but instead because criminals need to be stopped. Superman can’t be turned from good. Batman refuses to harm innocents even if it means losing the villain.
Of course, superheroes are not without their flaws. As authors Tom Morris and Jeph Loeb remind us, “There can be darkness in a character as well as light, as there is in any human life, but that darkness must ultimately be constrained by the good…..” It’s important for children to see that superheroes have flaws in order for them to learn how these heroes deal with them. This allows children to understand that nobody is perfect and that everyone has issues that they need to handle in their lives. It enables them to realize it is okay to struggle, to fear and to fall short of their best. It reminds them of the value of not giving up on their beliefs, goals and dreams…regardless whether they fail the first, third or twenty-third time.
Watching superheroes deal with suppressing their inner demons and still committing to fighting for what is right teaches children about self-discipline. It also affirms how power without self-discipline is dangerous. This can be seen by taking a look at the antithesis of the superhero, the super villain. These are characters that every superhero fights. Take Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor as an example. He uses his superior intellect to create destructive weapons. He also does it strictly for personal gain. These characters are examples of what happens when power goes to your head.
“…It’s never too late for adults to acquire and emulate our own superhero qualities.”
Here is my most important takeaway from my conversation with Sergio: It’s never too late for adults to acquire and emulate our own superhero qualities. I’m now more convinced than ever we each possess an inner superhero, a person of strength and conviction, of perseverance and commitment, one of character and decency, the world needs to see. But such power and potential won’t always be liberated naturally. It’s our job to release the latent talent already there, dormant perhaps, but waiting to be discovered, developed and deployed.
Duck Into Your Phonebooth For Change!
Not sure how to get started? I recommend you begin by reflecting on these four essential characteristics of the typical superhero:
Become invisible to fear and insecurity. We don’t need x-ray vision to see through walls of fear and self-doubt. We don’t have to possess a cape, wings or special powers to fly above gossip, rumor and innuendo. We can break through the invisible barriers of fear and insecurity by committing to take the high road instead of the easy road. We can choose not to be petty and small and set an example worth emulating. We can opt to shine a bright light into those dark places, and do what’s right even though we’re nervous about taking that step.
Don’t be too quick to Judge Yourself or Others: It’s tempting to fall in the trap of judging ourselves or others by what we see on the surface, ignoring the potential that shines just below skin-level. Take Batman: who would believe the uber-wealthy, party happy socialite Bruce Wayne is also the selfless and fearless guardian of Gotham City? Who would guess that behind Clark Kent’s thick glasses was a powerful ability to see through walls and across vast distances we cannot fathom? Here’s my point. Though we may feel and look ordinary to others, we all have within us some unique, extraordinary gift and skill no other person on earth possesses. We all have something with one-of-a-kind beauty to share with the world. Some of us just need more time to discover it.
Take Responsibility for Your Gifts: The only way to make your greatest possible contribution to your surroundings is to accept responsibility for exercising your full talent, gift and skill. Winston Churchill said, “Responsibility is the price of greatness.” That means you need to own who you are and what you do. Take every opportunity to put your personal superpowers to the test and watch your confidence climb, your influence soar and the opportunities to add tangible value to the lives of those around you multiply. Resolve every day to do something to become your best possible you.
Prepare to Meet Some Adversaries: Just as every superhero has a cast of villains to fight, be ready to face resistance in becoming your best you. The good news is you need not fear being chased by laser shooting scoundrels or mutated creatures with extraordinary strength. Your true adversaries will be negative, small minded or jealous people, along with arch villain inner-traits like procrastination and fear. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by naysayers or fall prey to the host of excuses of why you shouldn’t attempt bold things. Stay focused on your cause and recognize resistance is the necessary price of positive progress.
“…there is a superhero in all of us!”
Just as in comic books, real life can be big, bad and scary. Our challenges can loom large and sometimes seem more daunting than mere mortal flesh and blood can overcome. But don’t be fooled. Everything we need to prevail against these fears was shared with us as children. Namely, there is a superhero in all of us. We all possess the power to stand as beacons of hope and healing to the lost, the broken, and the fearful. Just as Clark Kent has a superman inside and Peter Parker is only a web-throw away from Spider Man, so you and I have amazing powers for good waiting to be tapped.
No cape or costume required.