What kind of superhero would succeed as a corporate leader?

You can’t expect your CEO to have Spider-Man or Wolverine superpowers. Can you?

"You almost need a Marvel superhero to run the bank," one analyst commented last week after John Flint was suddenly ousted as chief executive of HSBC.

It made me wonder: when senior executives gather, do they speculate about the superpower they would most like to possess? And if headhunters were to prepare a shortlist of superheroes for the next big corporate job, which ones would they try to tempt away from saving the world with the promise of an annual trip to Davos and a benchmark-busting long-term incentive plan?

The enhanced abilities of some superheroes and supervillains come straight from leadership handbooks.

Inspirational Avenger Captain America is an expert military tactician, blessed with extraordinary agility, a quality much sought-after in would-be corporate leaders. Evil robot Ultron boasts strength, speed and stamina to overcome the energy-sapping long-haul travel schedule that reportedly helped do in HSBC's Flint. (Ultron can also "make calculations with superhuman speed and accuracy", according to one fan site, which might recommend him for chief financial officer if the top job is unavailable).


Any chief executive would envy the Thing's rocklike skin, an important defence against volatile markets

Chief executives are always receiving glib advice to spot patterns in weak signals, so Spider-Man or Black Panther’s powers of “precognition” would come in handy. Such traits would make it easier for a new HSBC chief executive to monitor a global company with nearly 250,000 staff.

Any chief executive would envy the Thing’s rocklike skin, an important defence against the rough and tumble of volatile markets, not to mention the brickbats of analysts and the media. Just occasionally, after a particularly poor quarter, they may even want to draw on the Invisible Woman’s signature superpower or the shape-shifting abilities of anti-hero Loki.


Then there are the superfluous powers. Some superskills – I’m thinking of Ant Man’s ability to communicate telepathically with insects or even Spider-Man’s web-shooters – are of less use in the weekly strategy meeting.

Others are positively counter-productive. There will be times when, as the boss, you might yearn for the retractable adamantium claws of Wolverine, if only to put a bit of force behind your often-ignored commands. You may even wish to fix colleagues with the hellfire of a “penance stare” like Ghost Rider, who visits his wrath on the wicked like an overzealous compliance officer.

A gentler style of management is generally preferred in the boardroom these days, though. Staff may whisper “you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry” about the ambitious and seemingly mild-mannered middle manager, but Hulk-style vengeance-seeking tends to disqualify candidates from the leadership fast track.

Let's face it, most corporate bosses fall into the category of more minor characters listed on Marvel's official website

As for "genius-level intellect", a quality shared by many Marvel characters, this is more of a handicap to achieving high corporate office. EQ is as important as IQ for the 21st-century chief executive. John Cryan, the ill-fated former chief executive of Deutsche Bank, was noted for his "enormous brain" – an attribute shared with Avenger Iron Man – but he could not think the German lender out of its predicament. Flint himself was "respected for his quiet intelligence", according to a damning-with-faint-praise note by the Financial Times's Lex column.

Let’s face it, most corporate bosses fall into the category of more minor characters listed on Marvel’s official website, which include an Administrator and “the woman known as Appraiser”, whose less-than-thrilling role seems to have been to determine the value of mutants. A job at one of the Big Four audit firms awaits her.

‘Untold millennia’

Similarly, everybody knows a long-serving chief executive who has “performed his duty for untold millennia” like the sorcerer called Aged Genghis, whose mind was “long ago consumed by mystic forces”. It is to protect against such superannuated superheroes that the UK governance code suggests a nine-year limit on directors before they are deemed to be no longer independent.

The collective strength and cohesion of the whole team at the top is the true organisational superpower

In truth, though, while the analyst’s comment was a throwaway line, it says more about the unmanageably broad scope of some modern multinationals than it does about the dearth of executives with the superhuman skills to lead them.

The collective strength and cohesion of the whole team at the top is the true organisational superpower. Irrespective of title or place in the nominal hierarchy, teams perform better when the chief executive defers to fellow executives best-equipped to tackle a particular challenge. Marvel’s fantasy world has a model and a motto for this, too: Avengers, assemble!

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019