Heroic Talent Management

“Fiction,” Albert Camus said, “is the lie through which we tell the truth.” To many, a superhero or sci-fi movie is an escape. But the characters embody all that we look for in a leader, all that we strive to be. These are our modern mythologies, offering insight on how to be fantastic and warning of common pitfalls.

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Take Luke Skywalker, the heir to extraordinary talents. He grew up in humble and undistinguished surroundings. He was unaware of his abilities for a significant portion of his young life. It took an odd confluence of events to lead Luke to the person who would help him discover his talent. Thankfully for the Star Wars franchise, Obi-Wan Kenobi had an advantage over non-fiction managers; he knew Luke’s background, sensed his power with the Force, and just needed to wait for the right moment to reveal Luke’s potential.

The lesson for managers is to  be intuitive and omniscient. It would be great if we could use the Force, but at the very least, be open minded. Latent talents are difficult to uncover and often need experimentation and a safe place to surface. Remember the scene in Return of the Jedi where Luke and Leia were on the bridge in the Ewok village? She tells Luke that he has powers she doesn’t understand, and he tells her that the Force is strong in their family—including her—and encourages her to search her feelings. Ask yourself: what might your talent pool discover about themselves if encouraged to explore their abilities or desires to develop a skill or expertise? More than just encouragement is needed. The workplace and work culture must be a safe place where innovation is welcomed and options are explored. An employee who does not feel safe professionally may stick to tradition or prescribed roles, and miss an opportunity for growth and improvement.

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 Know Yourself

Star Wars isn’t the only franchise replete with examples of heroic talent management. Iron Man is a classic anti-hero, a flawed superhero who can never see past his own ambitions and feelings to reach the greater good. He understands innovation, funds it; fosters and embodies it. He cannot see the ethical path beyond his own navel. Whether he a narcissist, or merely conflicted, some fundamental piece of Iron Man’s character is always missing. Bill Moyers said, “It’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.” Iron Man cannot do this. He is masterful at imagining a better world, but his how always backfires. And despite Tony Stark’s ability to spot and support talent like Spiderman’s in Civil War, he does not allow his colleagues to become their full selves the same way that his foil, Captain America, does.

By comparison, Captain America is probably less brilliant, but more stable and reliable. He is a man of traditions—of precedent—who has the benefit of time. He has seen heroes, villains, and nations rise and fall, and has learned from each. Cap has core values—loyalty, justice, freedom—and sticks to them even when everyone wishes he would not. At every turn his loyalty to a long-lost friend, Bucky, is questioned. Is it reasonable? Is it even sane? In the end, Cap, with his unwavering loyalty to a friend, is the only superhero who can pull the Winter Soldier back from the dark side to the light. It is not always popular to have unwavering loyalty to a poor-performing employee, but if that employee can be rehabilitated, it is often better for the organization than starting all over with someone new. Avoid having a rehabilitation plan that is a punishment or an inevitable step to proving the case for termination.

Several lessons are in this comparison. First, strive for self-awareness and humility over hubris. Managers struggle with seeing the flaws in something they created themselves, so be consciously open to input from fresh eyes. Next, always orient on the core values of the firm. Core values transcend trends and changing markets. They should cross all practice areas, be lofty, and be rooted in the culture and purpose of the firm. Whether dealing with awful opposing counsel or savage office politics, stand firm and be honorable. Finally, good managers are rocks—solid and calm—avoiding alarmist reactionary behavior. They ask questions and are open to the answers.

Train Like the World Depends on It

Captain America is also a superior mentor, a natural-born teacher who expects great things from his team members. Cap is not intimidated by teaching someone like the Scarlet Witch, a more powerful superhero than he can ever be. He is not made insecure by other’s strengths, and he approaches all threats with a team mentality. Captain America would never hoard knowledge so he could be the big shot. He is, in a word, selfless.

Being a hero is not just being courageous in the face of danger. Train and prepare rigorously. Heroes and their teammates prepare for alien invasion on slow days. Leaders train hard, teach well, and share knowledge. Be a fantastic leader by working at it.

Always Take Responsibility

But Captain America is not perfect. He is blinded by his loyalty and makes a wrong move that costs lives in Civil War. Poor leaders blame subordinates and mentees like Iron Man blames Scarlet Witch. Honorable managers acknowledge their own part, like Captain America does.

Be a team player and be honest. When a subordinate feels truly “thrown under the bus” by a manager, trust and camaraderie is impossible to recover. Remember, the buck almost always stops with the manager. Under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, both the supervising and subordinate attorney would be liable for a mistake both knew about unless it “was [a]reasonable resolution of an arguable question of professional duty,” in which case it would fall only on the shoulders of the supervising lawyer. RPC 5.1, 5.2. In other words, a known failure is always, at least partially, a failure of leadership.

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It Takes Teamwork

Talent management is more than leading or directing from above. Management is best accomplished in tandem with a mutual investment in goals, strategies, and a positive working relationship. In this way, all participants are able to learn and grow—to rely on each other’s strengths and bolster each other when weaknesses emerge.

It is hard to imagine a stranger pair than Han Solo and Chewbacca: a human and a wookie; a daredevil and a warrior/protector. Han is the putative leader, Chewbacca is crew. Yet they have formed a great working team—each supporting the other at critical times for the success of the mission (or adventure), each valuing the input of the other. Looking at their relationship from the outside, it succeeds for a variety of reasons. Each must accept the other for his strengths and weaknesses; each must appreciate what the other brings to the relationship. Trust and honesty is essential. Han and Chewbacca know each other well; they accept each other’s strengths and flaws, and maximize each to stay loyal to the team’s mission.

This is yet another lesson for those who manage. Know your strengths and weaknesses—you will be better able to manage from within a team with that knowledge. Once you recognize how you react, what your strongest and weakest skills are, where you excel and where you do not, you will be better able to identify strategies to make your team stronger. Understand that although you are the manager, you are a member of a team, and must leverage individual talents for the best possible outcome.

The dynamic between Han Solo and C-3PO is an excellent example. When Han meets C-3PO, he is instantly irritated by C-3PO’s prissy, exacting manner and insistence on protocol. Yet, in a time of need, C-3PO is a valued ally and team member. He possesses skills Han lacks—not only in linguistics, but in etiquette. He can interact successfully with the Ewoks (yes, they think he’s a deity, but that’s not the only reason) and creates a way for Han and his team to leverage the Ewoks’ talents. Accepting the fact that others have talents you lack and learning to best leverage them will make for a satisfying mutual work relationship.

Have A Plan

In Star Wars (Episode IV), Luke Skywalker is a novice—powerful and full of potential, but a novice. Realizing that Luke needs to refine his skills, Obi-Wan sends him to Yoda, the last Jedi Master, for training. Yoda pushes Luke past his comfort zone, forcing him to strenuously train both physically and mentally. Yoda isn’t just training a fighter. He trains his successor.  In forcing Luke to confront his feelings, and learn to master them, Yoda is preparing Luke for a future where he may not have others to guide him.

The best leader is one who makes opportunity available to his or her subordinates, and who has a plan for the future. Talent management is a combination of mentoring, championing, and succession planning. Those new to the profession need to be taught, and need to know how to educate themselves. The flood of lawyers leaving BigLaw and stepping out on their own shows us that merely creating learning opportunities is not enough. A meaningful path forward to achievement, advancement, and success is also essential.

Bringing it Home

Lofty ideals abound in the movies, making them seem unattainable. But they are attainable with forethought and effort. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” of what we truly want to have and be. Dream big and it shall be.

About the Authors

tepper anastasio
Roberta Tepper (left) is the lawyer assistance programs director for the State Bar of Arizona. She provides practice management advice and administers a number of programs including the State Bar’s Mentor Program and Member Assistance Program. Roberta also holds a leadership role in the Arizona Women Lawyers Association. Reach her at Roberta.Tepper@staff.azbar.org or 602.340.7332. 

Charity Anastasio (right) is the director of law office management assistance at the Maryland State Bar Association. She was in private practice and at the Washington State Bar Association’s Law Office Management Assistance Program before she joined the MSBA team in September 2016. Reach her at canastasio@msba.org or 410.685.7878.

(Feature Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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