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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

One of the most challenging skills to master as a CEO or top-level leader is knowing when to dive into the details of your team's work and when to soar high above and observe from the sky. There is only one person who can do both effortlessly: Superman.

Let's don the cape and assume the classic stance. What can the original superhero teach us about leadership?

Historically, you likely achieved your professional success by getting results and keeping things on track. You watched budgets and timelines; you developed and recognized talent; and you delegated work appropriately.

You were applauded for your work and you developed a Pavlovian response that reinforced the belief that if you were a person who could do all of the work, you were rewarded by a higher position. As you climbed the ladder, this reward/response cycle became more solidified in your brain. Throughout the process, you also had the security of someone else you could go to down the hall if you needed guidance or help. Typically, this was another top leader who you could turn to – a sort of in-an-emergency-break-glass mentor or leader.

Fast forward a few more career jumps and it is you who is down the hall. The tactical work is getting done by someone else. Your desk is clear but now it is up to you to set the direction, chart the course, and be the visionary and strategy chief for your area or organization.

You might be Superman but now you are trapped in the fortress of solitude.

You are living in the murky unknown of your own work and to top it all off, things aren't getting done the way you would like them done. You don't approve of the way that announcement was worded and the budget was late and that person shouldn't have resigned and – oh dear – it was never like that when you were in charge of that area. Don't despair. Superman and the Super Friends will answer your call.

Man of Steel

Regardless of the strengths that landed you the promotion – whether you excelled as an executor or big picture visionary – you'll need a command in both to succeed. You'll need to draw on your superhuman strength.

Fortunately, your passion for the work is the jet fuel that will carry you forward regardless of your unique strengths. As a leader, your key job is to set the context and the direction. Through conversations and communications with your team, the purpose of your mission will shine through. Your conviction will be critical to your ability to inspire and lead. You must not let it waver – your team is counting on your strength. Like Superman, your team is looking to you and relying on your strength to save the world.

All of us are born with either a strong competency towards detail work or vision and all of us have to work intentionally to strengthen the other. Luckily, we have teams that can help us in this quest.

Justice League

The Superman of the 1970s had the Justice League, and together they were able to combat evil forces. Everyone has unique superpowers – be intentional about choosing your top talent with a view to complementing your strengths to build a super team. You can use formal assessment tools or you can use simple and free web tools to determine the ideal make-up of your team. Regardless, as the top leader, you need to be unflinchingly honest about your abilities and what you need to support some of your less-robust attributes. What's your kryptonite?

Do you tend towards micro-managing? If so, you better hang up that cape because no one wants to work for you. You need to have confidence in your team and be mindful as it changes – watch the mix at the table. Vigilance and constant reviewing and tweaking of the mix is necessary to maximize the collective strengths of you and your leaders.


What's in your utility belt? What technologies are you using? All super heroes use the latest and greatest gadgets to help them defeat their foes. For today's top leader, the right technology can really help balance micro/macro tendencies. You can put processes in place that allow you to keep track of key indicators without constantly checking on your team. Effective monitoring can free you up to be visionary while keeping the scoreboard secure – or Gotham city safe. Tools like Evernote and setting up automatic reminders can be used to keep an eye on things without being intrusive. Spend some of your visionary time researching tools that can work for you and your team.

It's a bird – it's a plane!

Now that you have the team, the skills, the tools and you've set the context, there is no limit to where you can go. Remember things are always changing, there are new villains at every turn. It's your job to be continually scanning and reviewing the landscape to redefine the environment and what it means for your team.

Saving the world is tiring work, but the world needs more Superman. You can do it. Remember, when you need a break, you can always slip back into Clark Kent mode.

Shirlee Sharkey is president and CEO of Saint Elizabeth, a leading national health care organization. @ShirleeSharkey