Full disclosure: I was provided a free copy of this book by the author, David Kahn, for the express purpose of reviewing it on this website. I was not previously aware of his work and have no bias regarding him, but if you give me a free book I’ll happily read it and tell you what I think. (In fact, you probably won’t be able to stop me.)
That said, I feel at least a little bit guilty about accepting it now that I’ve read it, because while I think that the geek set will enjoy it, it really functions more as an ambassador to the non-geeky professionals out there who think of comic books and superheroes as a waste of time. ‘Cape, Spandex, Briefcase’ takes as its thesis that in fact, superheroes have a lot to teach about leadership, and it uses comic book (and movie) characters as metaphors to talk about the fundamentals of managing a team.
That’s not to say there’s nothing for the geek set–there are a lot of entertaining comic book references, and certainly I got a few chuckles out of the little Easter eggs thrown into the book (team members include Mary Jane and Virginia Potts, for example). But it’s really about management principles, with the comics used as a means of illustrating those principles. If you’re not looking for advice on how to motivate people, you may find the rest of the book a little thin. That said, if you are looking for advice on how to motivate people, already being a fan will probably help you absorb the lessons easier, since you’ll already be familiar with the subject matter under discussion. That is, unless you decide to nitpick the use of Cyclops as a moral center for the X-Men due to his actions in ‘Secret Wars’ or something.
It’s also important to note that while it is aimed at non-fans, it’s not intended as an education in comic book history. It does do some education along the way–the examples that the author uses, some of which get pretty obscure for non-comics fans (I would not have expected a reference to Sub Diego) are relevant to the topic at hand and explained well enough that a non-geek can follow along–but it’s primarily using those examples as teaching tools. Even so, it illuminates some subtle facets of superheroes along the way. There’s a very nice section, for example, where it looks at Batman through the lens of management–he has sidekicks that function as his employees, he promotes from within by helping people realize their full potential, and he surrounds himself with good people who are willing to challenge him. (Which are obviously some of the traits that Kahn is trying to instill in the reader as well.)
So now that I’ve discussed what it isn’t, let’s talk about what it is. Kahn has five basic principles of leadership, which he describes in a tongue-in-cheek fashion as “super powers”, which he believes will help to make a more effective manager. (The book focuses on the business world, since that’s where the audience is for a book like this, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use it when running a convention or gaming group.) I feel like it would be a bit unfair to summarize them here, since the whole point of the book is that you need the context to make sense of the principles, but I will say that they seem like reasonable skills for any good leader to develop.
Each one is illustrated with several examples from the comic book world. Some are illustrated in the positive sense (Professor X as an example of business ethics–I’m assuming it’s the one from the movies here, not the one who threw a bowling ball at Iceman’s head to test his reflexes) and the negative sense (Luthor and Otis are given as an example of why management through intimidation creates learned helplessness). Along the way, he shows the main character, Ben, putting them into action with his own team in a sort of framing sequence that surrounds each session of comic book lore.
I did enjoy the framing sequence, although there were a few times I wondered how Ben could have gotten to 2015 without knowing who Wolverine is. (Although as a concession to common sense, Ben has seen ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Thor’.) Still, I’m willing to forgive the author a certain amount of noobishness on the part of his protagonist, despite the fact that it caters to a stereotype of business types as boring stick-in-the-muds who don’t know anything about pop culture, because Ben needs to learn something for the story to progress. And there probably are people out there who don’t know who Wolverine is–I just don’t move in their social circles.
On the whole, I liked the basic premise of the book, and I thought it was well explicated from the beginning–of course we can learn just as much from superheroic titans as we can from titans of industry. They’re designed as metaphors to teach us about ourselves, after all. I don’t know how much opportunity I’ll have to apply the lessons in the book, but they do seem like good lessons to teach and good lessons to learn.
Maybe I’ll recommend it to my boss…