Leadership Lessons from Iron Man

design leadership Sep 01, 2022

Not every leader is born wishing they had a team to lead, and frankly you don't need to. I can honestly tell you that I didn't want to become a manager at all because I was used to seeing and hearing how people in those roles acted in a way that went against my principles - other team members hated them, and they made their lives miserable in return.

Of course, I was generalizing, but I didn't have any good example to prove the opposite was true, and since I thought that managers were also leaders, I didn't want to become one either.

On the opposite side, I was always drawn to heroes. I loved how Luke Skywalker fought against himself and won to resist joining the dark side; how Peter Parker was just a kid from Brooklyn helping out his neighbors; or the way that the Guardians of the Galaxy were a bunch of misfits and still made it work. But there was one character I always rooted for and others didn't understand why, that character was Tony Stark AKA Iron Man.

This is the story of how I learned to become a leader by watching Tony Stark grow as a character over more than ten years.

The leader's journey

Being the center of attention

Put a confident, intelligent and sarcastic character on the screen and it will always catch my attention. It is just the type of personality I'm drawn towards. Ever since the first movie, Tony Stark wasn't afraid of taking the center stage and using his charisma (and money) to get what he wanted. I could relate, after all, I used to act similarly within teams: taking advantage of being the best in what I did to lead decisions and showing-off because everybody knew I was the best.

But taking advantage of your skills in such a way doesn't help you to become a leader. It creates the opposite situation where people prefer not to work with you because your attitude creates friction, even though the quality of your work is outstanding. As I've mentioned in the past: a team is like a band, so you have to tone down your solos to create group cohesion.

He was fine being the sole center of attention, until one day he was invited to join an initiative.

Denial of being part of something

When you're used to relying solely on yourself, you don't like the idea of depending on others or trusting them with your toys, just like Tony Stark wasn't keen on joining the Avengers. He was called because he was needed, but he wasn't interested in staying for long and being part of a team, he had much more interesting things to do on his own.

Switching from freelancing to joining a team feels unnatural, it certainly felt like that to me. I wasn't excited to fit in because I knew I could do things on my own, or at least that's what I thought. It wasn't until I realized that others possessed skills that I lacked that made me appreciate being part of a cross-functional team, and because of that, I started to find ways to help others do their work better.

It was uncomfortable for Tony to be asked to be part of a team, until one day something bigger happens and he realized he should do something about it. That was the battle of New York.

Trying and failing to strike a balance

He was getting more used not only to the idea of being part of a team but also leading them. The problem was when unexpected problems started to happen and he was expected to act as the perfect leader that others wanted him to be. Like being attacked by his former colleague Aldrich Killian based on resentment, dealing with the friction of conflicting values with his leadership peer Steve Rogers or looking at how his novel idea of creating Ultron to protect the world completely backfired him.

There was a time when I was moving into bigger and more complex challenges as an IC, with the idea of becoming a leader at the back of my mind without taking it seriously. The fact that I had recently left an unhealthy working environment didn't help at all, because it only made me doubt myself and prevented me from giving leadership a real chance.

It would be hard for me to point out an exact moment in time when I finally considered myself a leader, but two decisive factors that made a big difference to start my transition:

  1. I found my first mentor, the person that saw the potential in me that I couldn't see by myself, giving me challenging opportunities to try, and teaching me what a real leader looks like.
  2. My peers started trusting me as a leader without being asked to do so, even without a title attached to my name.

I wish there was a manual to read when you're just getting started as a leader. I have read several leadership and management books and articles, but there are so many variables and nuances around your context of becoming a leader that it's unrealistic to expect to be 100% prepared for it.

Tony Stark was having trouble trusting his leadership capabilities, until one day someone started looking up at him and trusting him blindly, that certain someone was no other than Peter Parker. If you're keeping track of the parallels you may have noticed this pattern already: When others start seeing you as a leader even if there's a lot left to improve, there's a better chance that you'll trust yourself enough to try.

Not feeling ready to level up

You know how the saying goes: What got you here won't get you to the next level. By the time Infinity War arrived, Tony was very confident about being a leader and a mentor. He had gone through a lot in ten years and seven movies, positioning himself as a clear leadership figure even for those that were skeptical at first, but he had only been saving the world, now was the time to save the universe.

He tried, apparently failed, and lost most of his team in the process. This is the type of earth-shattering scenario that can break even the most experienced leaders, and design leadership isn't absent from that. The sarcastic, intelligent, and highly confident Tony Stark was shattered.

When you think about people like Ryan Rumsey, Dan Mall, or Brad Frost it's easy to get inspired by how much they have contributed to the design community worldwide, but they are also humans and deal with struggles just like you and me. Sometimes is about stepping into a new role, expanding a business, or taking care of their wellbeing. Career paths aren't linear, which also includes a lot of challenges you weren't prepared for and can make you doubt yourself more than once. The key is to learn from it, adapt and overcome it.

I was directing design. And I was utterly stuck. - Ryan Rumsey

"SuperFriendly 2021 Wrap-Up," an article by Dan Mall

Working Better: Interview with web designer Brad Frost - Noisli

Stark decided that it was time to retire in a cozy cabin in the woods and leave his Iron Man alter ego behind. Until one day, the opportunity knocked at his door and this time he was ready to save the universe.

Returning, but as a different person

I knew Tony Stark would sacrifice himself as soon as I saw a little figure with a small helmet similar to Iron Man's. As a fan, I was in denial of seeing Tony die before Infinity War came out, and the last argument I could find to back up my theory was that he didn't have a family, to give closure to his personal life... until it was no longer the case and I didn't have a doubt about what was going to happen next. Why? you might ask. Because he was now a different person, he became a leader and a hero.

As I mentioned some time ago on Twitter: if you asked me years ago if I wanted to be a leader I would have said no in a heartbeat. People within my team find it hard to believe, but I'm an incredibly introverted person, hence my lack of desire to join a team just like Tony at first.

I went through a slow and conscious mindset change before the opportunity knocked at my door, and even if I didn't know 100% how I was going to build a team from scratch (which is a very daunting challenge if you have never done it before) I knew it was time, I was ready to join a new team, only this time I was the leader.

When I first watched Iron Man I was in because of Tony's charming personality, but what made me stay was the character's arc. Similarly, starting in Product Design was fun because of the technical challenges, but what keeps me going nowadays is becoming a better leader and manager for my team each day, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

“You know who the best managers are? They're the great individual contributors, who never ever want to be a manager, but decide they have to be a manager because no one else is going to be able to do as good a job as them.”

Steve Jobs

Laura Escobar

Passionate about stories, inspired by sci-fi and fueled with music. I solve complex time-sensitive puzzles for a living.