Think bigger: How to retain the ‘Clark Kents’ within your workforce

by Ken Perlman

Superman is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but how long can he sit at his desk with someone breathing down his neck and treating him like the least important person in the world?

Clark Kent is leaving the Daily Planet.

Stop. This is important. Read that again. Think about this as a leader in an organization. This is huge.

Clark Kent, the mild-mannered alter ego — the brains if you will, to the brawn that is Superman — quit his day job out of frustration with the organization and his ability to make a difference in his role.

Think bigger.

THE social icon of our time has made a fundamental change to his identity. The hero who embodied truth, justice and the American way is leaving corporate America to find his own voice and chart his own path forward.

Think about this in the context of our time.

Superman has always reflected the society and time in which he operates. In the 1940s, he was fighting Nazis. In the 1950s, he was fighting in space. In the 1960s, it was nuclear weapons and race relations. Clark Kent and Superman have always been a social commentary on the world around them.

What Clark Kent quitting The Daily Planet should signal to us is that the fundamental way of working that has existed since Clark Kent started at The Daily Planet almost a century ago (yikes!) is failing to retain the heroes of today.

In his interview with USA Today, new Superman writer Scott Lobdell says, “Superman is arguably the most powerful person on the planet, but how long can he sit at his desk with someone breathing down his neck and treating him like the least important person in the world?”

This storyline would not have been conceived nor approved at DC Comics in the 1940s or 50s or 60s or 70s or 80s or 90s. But today…it’s here.

For those of you who might be cynical about this, thinking this is just a business out to create a new story line and sell some comics or keep the brand fresh until the next movie comes out: Not only do I think you are missing the point here, but I really wonder what that cynical filter is causing you to miss in your own organization.

We have four generations in our workplace today. I’ve written and spoken about this before. The rules, the incentives and the goals of the generations on the ends of the spectrum are fundamentally different. So, too, is the level of patience, tolerance and frustration the younger generations are willing to suffer through in order to someday make a difference.

Like Clark Kent, they want to make a difference now. They want to be heard and understood. They would trade a pay raise for a better boss. And they are intolerant of the old rules, old politics and old fears that are holding them back. And like Clark Kent, they now see the opportunity to do something different, and they leave.

So, as a leader in an organization — probably something metaphorically like The Daily Planet — what are we to do? Do we hope the old ‘work your way up’ or ‘speak when you are spoken to’ approach comes back? Not going to happen.

It is our responsibility to provide the heroes, innovators and entrepreneurs with true urgency who are sprinkled throughout our organizations the opportunity to step up and make a real difference — in their jobs, in their organizations, to your customers, in the marketplace, in the community and our world.

This is not about philanthropy.

I am talking about an organization’s ability to succeed in a competitive marketplace. If The Daily Planet loses Clark Kent, who is sticking around? Who would you rather have working for you: The Man of Steel or Jimmy Olsen (no offense, Jimmy)?

This is about how leaders at the top of organizations connect the individual efforts of the leaders at every level of the organization to the overall strategy and mission the organization is trying to fulfill. When all leaders can connect those individual puzzle pieces and show how they fit together, then the organization can accelerate to achieve success at all levels – individual, team, organizational, short-term, long-term, financial and global.

When people see themselves as Clark Kent — people capable of doing good work, making a difference, having an impact, and helping their colleagues, teams, organizations do well and do good — that’s when we as leaders are worthy of the heroes who work for us.

It is part of making organizational leaps in single bounds, and it is what we mean by “Millions Leading, Billions Benefitting”.


Ken Perlmanis an engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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