Even if you didn’t grow up reading comics, I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For me, I’m amazed at how they’ve been able to weave together a connected universe so well. It’s a feat that many other franchises have attempted and failed to do. The Marvel characters remain larger than life; they’re fun — popcorn films. Marvel should be employed and enjoyed when you need an escape from the real world for a couple of hours.
However, I’ve also picked up on something else from these movies. Leaders can become better and stronger people through these cartoon tales of suspense.
Here are 11 of my favorites leadership lessons from Tony Stark.
1. You have to evolve.
Despite being a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, Tony Stark made plenty of mistakes throughout his cinematic journey. But, instead of harping on those mistakes, he learned from them in order to become a better superhero, teammate, and human being. It’s why some have argued that Tony has the most dramatic character arc in the MCU.
One example is how he’s continually improving his suit. In Iron Man 2, his suit takes a beating from Whiplash, the antagonist of the film, thanks to his electric whips. In The Avengers when Thor strikes the suit with lightning, it absorbs the energy and uses it against the Asgardian.
As a leader, it’s imperative that you learn from your past mistakes. I firmly believe learning to evolve comes from considering your past errors and is one of the best ways to continually improve yourself — so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
2. Harness the power of anxiety and stress.
Tony is in bad shape at the start of Iron Man 3. Can you blame him? It’s not every day that you guide a nuclear weapon through a wormhole and fight an alien army. However, Tony was still able to channel his anxiety and stress into something positive by the end of the movie. It was pretty straightforward; he doesn’t need a highly advanced suit of armor to be a superhero.
There’s a lot of stressful situations that keep us up at night, and we can’t let them consume us. Instead, we need to take these negative feelings and use to them to our advantage. Believe it or not, being a little uncomfortable can spark creativity, improve brain function, and motivate you to find solutions to problems.
3. Be socially responsible.
Following the first Iron Man film, Tony decides to stop manufacturing weapons — much to the chagrin of Obadiah Stane. The reason? He saw first hand the devastation that this technology was doing to the world. Tony wanted to use his tech for good instead — like creating sustainable energy. He also threw a couple of “parties” that looked like some amazing charity events.
Being a socially responsible leader like Tony isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Employees and customers want to work with companies that are socially and environmentally responsible. Giving back to the community is a surefire way to enhance soft skills, like communication, and be exposed to new opportunities.
4. It’s alright to spend time alone.
Think about when Tony did his best and most impressive work. It was when he was tinkering around in his workshop alone.
Obviously, Mr. Stark isn’t an introvert and loves being around others. At the same time, he knew the value of working in solitude because there aren’t any distractions from interrupting you. Additionally, spending time alone sparks creativity, increases productivity, builds mental strength, and makes you more empathetic. All of these are desirable leadership traits to possess.
5. Surround yourself with the best people.
Tony doesn’t surround himself with just anyone. Besides Earth’s mightiest heroes, he has the incredibly loyal Happy Hogan and supportive best friend, James Rhodes. There’s also Pepper Potts who is more than capable of taking over the day-to-day operations of Stark Industries.
Great leaders are well aware that no matter how talented they are, they surround themselves with amazing people who have unique and diverse skills and perspectives. Even if you don’t always agree with these people in everything — having them around will ultimately make you a stronger and more effective leader.
6. Be confident, but also know your limitations.
If you’ve watched any of the MCU movies, then you know that Tony Stark doesn’t lack confidence. Having a healthy ego isn’t always a bad thing. The key, however, is knowing when you have to put your ego aside and listen to others.
Although there were times when Tony let his ego get in the way, he also displayed an essential lesson about recognizing your limitations. He famously — as Captain America did — “call it” during the battle of New York in The Avengers. Tony also implemented Hawkeye’s combat strategies during the same fight scene.
The best leaders are confident, but they’re aware of their weaknesses, too. Because of this self-awareness, a leader is more than willing to seek the input of others to make better decisions.
7. Always have a way out.
If there’s one trait that I think a lot of us love about Iron Man, it’s that he always has a Plan A, B, and C. These various plans are what make him such an admirable foe to supervillains — and members of the team. For instance, he designed the Hulkbuster armor just in case the big green rage monster lost control.
Having a contingency plan allows you to make decisions faster. It also allows you to remain calm, relaxed and collected during any situation. You won’t be able to help anyone else if you become frazzled or in a panic — and you are more likely to injure someone gravely. You can end up making costly mistakes — even if the errors can’t be seen.
8. Transparency is key.
At the end of the first film, Tony boldly states, “I am Iron Man.” But, before this declaration, he shares with the public how Stark Industries is going to pivot away from making weapons. Talk about building trust with the public.
On the flipside, in Age of Ultron, Tony secretly uses the tesseract to construct Ultron. In geometry — the tesseract is the four-dimensional analog of a cube — and is called “the Cube” in Marvel. As a result of Tony’s actions, the robot develops a mind of its own and eventually concludes with a huge battle called, the Battle of Sokovia. This event created distrust among the Avengers and was one of the reasons for the Sokovia Accords — which played a significant role in Captain America: Civil War.
Transparency is critical in the workplace. Clarity builds trust, strengthens relationships, and keeps employees engaged. Being open encourages everyone to find the best solutions for the team — and not just themselves. Transparency also ensures that you and your team are on the same page, particularly when aligning with your vision.
9. Work with what you have available.
“TONY STARK WAS ABLE TO BUILD THIS IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!” exclaims Obadiah Stane. This statement occurs when another scientist isn’t able to replicate the arc reactor in Iron Man. Although this movie has not been released, as of this writing, I’m sure we’re all going to witness Tony’s resourcefulness in Endgame. How else is going to get back home safe and sound?
Leaders must be flexible and adaptive and be able to think on their feet, making decisions as quickly as possible. Sometimes they’re only able to do accomplish what they do from existing knowledge and a box of scraps — maybe even from gut instinct.
10. Encourage others to be better leaders.
I enjoy the chemistry between Tony and Peter Parker. One of my favorite exchanges between them is when Spidey tells Tony, “I wanted to be like you.” His response? “I wanted you to be better.”
As a leader, you want to mentor others, especially younger generations like Gen Z who are clamoring for advice. We all want them to achieve more than any of us can even imagine. Peter wanted to emulate Tony. But, Tony didn’t want the young hero to make the same mistakes he had — tat’s why he was so tough on him. Tony knew Peter had the potential to be a better hero, and person, than he, himself, is.
11. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Finally, Tony Stark doesn’t always take himself too seriously. Even in the thick of battle, he can deliver a comical one-liner to lighten the mood. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to eat the donut in the iconic Randy’s Donuts sign? At the same time, he also knows when he has to buckle down and get serious.
A good leader knows how important it is to have a little fun. Fun, even a one-line comic phrase can break the ice and make your culture stand out. It also prevents burn out and can build an unbreakable bond among your team. Your team already knows, when it’s time to get things done — it’s all business.