Power Up: Leadership, Character, and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse

  • Published

Power Up: Leadership, Character, and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse edited by Steven Leonard et al. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 320 pp.

Since antiquity, humankind has sought to better understand its collective experience and to explore ethical and moral challenges through the sharing of myths and legends. In Power Up: Leadership, Character, and Conflict Beyond the Superhero Multiverse, the editors present an anthology of essays that critically analyze topics relevant to today’s leaders—especially military leaders—through the lens of a modern mythology that includes popular heroes and villains from comic books, films, and television series. Lead editor retired US Army Colonel Steven Leonard is a member of the faculty at the University of Kansas School of Business, and he is best known in defense communities as the creator of the Doctrine Man blog. He previously published a similar anthology, To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond (2021), in which the collected authors examine military themes through the analysis of science fiction.

Over the course of 35 essays grouped into six distinct themes, authors in this anthology discuss the nature of heroism and leadership, team building, character and morality, and the ethical employment of technology in modern conflict. One of the significant strengths throughout this collection is the authors’ ability to make the stories of superheroes with extraordinary powers relatable to the moral, ethical, and interpersonal challenges that regular human beings face.

On playing Superman in film, Christopher Reeve once stated that “[what] makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely.”1 Similarly, each author in this work presents discussions that focus less on superheroes using their powers to solve problems and more on how those heroes’ character traits influenced their decision-making, which often enabled the heroes to prevail in difficult situations.

An excellent example of this perspective can be found in Eric Muirhead’s essay, “They Only Lack the Light to Show the Way,” in which he analyzes how Clark Kent’s human vulnerabilities did more than his superpowers to shape Superman’s approach to leadership and heroism. Muirhead explains that Superman’s story—especially as depicted in the 1978 Superman film directed by Richard Donner—is “a brilliant allegory for the power and importance of transformational leadership in our contemporary society” (107). Muirhead elaborates that as shown in the film, young Kent struggles with being “torn between respecting his concerned parents’ desire for secrecy and his own desire to use his amazing abilities for personal gain” (110). As an adolescent, Kent was confronted by his human father who impactfully told him “You are here for a reason . . . but I do know one thing, it’s not to score touchdowns” (110). Muirhead discusses how this shaping of Superman’s character at an early age drove him to use his abilities to serve others instead of himself.

Superman stands in stark contrast to the subjects of Kayla Hodges’ essay, “Boys Will Be Boys.” Hodges discusses how the superpowered characters from the television series, The Boys, abuse their abilities for personal gain because they lack a moral compass to guide them in the way that Superman was guided. Their newfound powers only magnify their character flaws instead of directing them to realize their potential to help others. A key takeaway, especially for military leaders, is that there are often points in one’s career during which one will be granted unique and significant power, authority, and freedom. When placed in these positions, a leader’s character—good or bad—is on full display, and both their positive and negative tendencies will be amplified. It is important to develop character in younger leaders through mentorship and to vet them appropriately for positions of greater authority in the future. Failure to do so will result in leaders who abuse power instead of those who responsibly use power for the good of the people and the mission.

Other compelling themes throughout Power Up include leading diverse teams and the ethical employment of technology in modern warfare. In his essay, “Call it, Captain,” Cory Hollon analyzes how Captain America rapidly and adroitly applies his knowledge of his team members’ unique experiences and abilities to assign them appropriate tasks through mission command. It was not Captain America’s super soldier strength but rather his human leadership ability that enabled his team to achieve success during the Battle of New York in the 2012 film, The Avengers.

Additionally, in her essay, “I’ve Come to Save the World,” Kera Rolsen contrasts the characters of Vision and Ultron—both powered by artificial intelligence—and argues that Vision’s ethical restraint built in by his creator differentiates him as a force for good compared to Ultron, who is an unchecked destructive power. Rolsen’s discussion on the need for ethical oversight of technology is particularly pertinent to today’s pursuit of artificial intelligence and machine learning in military applications. Both essays are fantastic examples of the insightful level of analysis throughout this anthology.

Power Up has little areas that require improvement, but there are a few essays that seemed to stretch to connect the superhero story with the analysis of the intended topic. Additionally, while it is a strength to examine lesser-known characters, one particular section presented two different essays on the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which caused this reader minor confusion because they explored slightly unrelated topics while using the same context. Lastly, there are recurring mentions of Russia’s war with Ukraine along with discussions of the current political divide in the United States. While this content is meaningful in the early 2020s, it may date this collection, which could potentially cause readers to dismiss this work’s relevance in the future.

Overall, Power Up is an outstanding anthology of relevant and timely essays written by a collection of some of the brightest military-connected writers of the post-9/11 generation. By examining military leadership through the lens of the superhero genre, this collection provides a fun and insightful vehicle to explore important topics through popular stories to which a broad audience can relate. This thought-provoking anthology is worth reading for any student of leadership.

Lieutenant Colonel Carl R. Chen, USAF, DBA

1. “Christopher Reeve – Quotes,” IMDb, accessed January 6, 2024, https://www.imdb.com/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."