LEADERSHIP / MAY. 03, 2015
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What Can Transformers Teach Us About Leadership?

While there have been many attempts to garner leadership insights from fictional stories over the years, it’s probably fair to say that few researchers and thought leaders have turned to the popular cartoon series Transformers for inspiration. However, a recent study suggests that the robots in disguise may have lessons for children and adults alike.

See Also: Three Workplace Lessons Learned from the ’Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’

"Storytelling is the traditional way we use to teach children about all manner of important issues concerning society and the proper way to behave," the authors say. "Beginning with Homer’s ’Iliad,’ we have used stories to examine what the role of government is, what we should expect from leaders and their followers and what the consequences of violating these norms are. It is a meaningful and memorable way to communicate such information,"

The franchise has come a long way from its roots in the mid 1980s as a line of toys that could transform into robots, fighting a civil war between the good ’Autobots’ and the evil ’Decepticons’. The authors believe that the stories used in the books and movies provide a good way of communicating leadership traits and characteristics.

"’The Transformers’ characters and the stories told in the cartoon are a modern example of traditional folklore as a means of educating individuals about leadership. And, as examples go, one that is particularly relevant since the generation that watched them and were exposed to the toys are in their mid-30s to early-40s. They are the decision makers of today and the immediate future," they say.

The Leadership Skills of Transformers

The study saw each of the 120 or so characters in the series analysed to determine their individual leadership capabilities. The character profiles were taken from the profiles written on the back of each toy. The researchers were analysing character traits such as courage, endurance, intelligence and skill.

"It was kind of a crazy idea, but it worked out well," they say. "For both factions, the single most important factor that determined an individual’s place in the leadership hierarchy was intelligence."

Of course, the profiles created for each character were largely a reflection how we often try and make sense of the workplace. In many ways, therefore, the authors believe the profiles give us a mirror into the kind of characteristics we believe are crucial for a leader.

The study also gives us an interesting insight into the leadership traits of good and evil. Optimus Prime, for instance, leads the Autobots with self-sacrifice, forgiveness and benevolence. Megatron, however, leads the Decepticons with a ruthless and violent style.

This is then played out in the plotlines themselves, with the Decepticons apparent advantage often undermined by disloyalty and incompetence from Megatron’s followers. As a result, the Autobots usually win through a combination of initiative and loyalty. This dynamic is much the same as we try to teach leaders in the workplace. The value of loyalty and initiative over disloyalty and sneakiness.

"While simple, those kinds of lessons can be useful when carried into the business world," the authors conclude. "Moral lessons in ’The Transformers’ and other fiction for children have played some role in shaping our understanding of how organizations should function and our perceptions of how the leader-follower dynamics should operate."

It’s well known that stories provide us with a fascinating glimpse into our culture and society, so it makes perfect sense for the same to apply to our organisational life. This study suggests that we should not be ashamed to broaden our search into unexpected places.

Taking Inspiration From Superheroes

Of course, there are other signs that this kind of setting is increasingly being used as a source for inspiration. Last month I wrote about a recent study that explored the role super heroes play as role models. They were looking in particular at the way female superheroes can inspire women. The results revealed that while female superheroes (who are often scantily dressed) can cause women to feel negatively about their bodies, they can also prompt them to focus on their physical and mental capabilities rather than their appearance.

See Also: Do Female Super Heroes Inspire Women?

Can you think of any other cartoons from your youth that have interesting lessons to teach us about leadership? Your thoughts and comments below please...

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