A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
March 19th, 2015 by William

You Can’t Be Superman Everyday

Back in the 1950s, I remember as a kid faithfully watching “The Adventures of Superman,” a television series about the Man of Steel as he fights crime. Regardless of how old, or young, most people know the story of Superman, his arrival on Earth from the planet Krypton and the fact that he disguised himself in daily life under the façade of being a reporter named Clark Kent for the newspaper The Daily Planet.

As Superman’s alter ego, the personality, concept, and name of Clark Kent have become ingrained in popular culture as synonymous with secret identities–and we all have our secret identity. In the earliest Superman comics, Clark Kent’s existence mirrored the belief that a costumed superhero cannot remain on full duty all the time. In the same way Batman is Bruce Wayne in everyday life. Like Wayne, Clark acted as little more than a front for Superman’s activities. Everything about Clark was staged for the benefit of his alternate identity as Superman.

Being a reporter for the newspaper was the perfect front for what Superman needed to be Superman. As a reporter he received late-breaking news before the general public, and thus could act on it to save the situation. It also gave him a plausible reason to be present at crime scenes, once Superman had saved the day and had left the scene.

To deflect suspicion that he is Superman, Clark Kent adopted a largely passive and introverted personality with conservative mannerisms that were described (in the show’s opening dialog) as “mild-mannered.” We all probably can recite the start to the Superman show:

Narrator: Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Man: Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird.
Woman: It’s a plane
Man: It’s Superman!
Narrator: Yes, it’s superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.

These “mild-mannered” traits extended into Clark’s wardrobe, which typically consisted of a bland-colored business suit, a red necktie, black-rimmed glasses, combed-back hair, and a fedora. Clark wears his Superman costume underneath his street clothes, allowing easy changes between the two personae. This change was usually done a telephone booth with a dramatic gesture of ripping open his shirt to reveal the familiar “S” emblem when called into action.

In case it hadn’t dawned on you, Superman was “superman” only outside of work? His supernatural powers only came alive after he left The Daily Planet. At work he was that mild-mannered and somewhat boring personality and quite possibly could have been considered an under-achiever–certainly by today’s standards of what a super employee should be. He probably got all 3’s on his performance review, with maybe a 2, or even 1 when it came to the fact that he was always late to every news worthy event. He had to wait for Superman to leave before he could show up as Clark Kent.

The fact is most of our work careers we’re a mirror image of the Clark Kent character. We’ll get a lot of 3’s and an occasional 2, or 1 on our performance reviews, all the while believing we’re worth a 4 or 5. That’s because most of us find ourselves battling an immense amount of bullshit tasks on our daily to-do list–none really requiring us to be a Superman. Occasionally however, we wish we could transform ourselves into Superman when we are faced with some task that’s seemingly impossible–like when we must react to the organizational news-flash of the latest catastrophe that the boss says threatens the very existence of the organization, i.e., the latest fire-fight that we are obliged to enter if we want to be seen as a “team player.”

In these crisis moments, we may see ourselves as a superhero, but what happens when we aren’t able to fulfill every “world saving” aspect of our daily job? The fact is we can’t be Superman every day and all the time. Even Superman knew he couldn’t be Superman all the time, hence why he assumed the persona of Clark Kent. The fact is all of us are more like Clark Kent than Superman. Unfortunately however, most of us are expected to do the work of a Superman, while being paid and treated like Clark Kent.

Another reason it’s tough to be Superman is that we all have our own Lex Luthor to deal with at work who’s trying to torpedo us. And, in most cases, that’s probably our boss. Lex Luthor was the wealthy, power-mad business magnate–the supervillain who is the archenemy of Superman. I find it somewhat interesting that Luthor was depicted as a typical sociopath at the top of a big corporation–LexCorp.

As it works out, bosses–the organizational Lex Luthors–are a big reason why people can’t be Superman at work. That’s because they usually see their underlings in the same way that Luthor saw Superman–an obstacle to achieving their megalomaniacal goals. The irony lies in the fact that, no matter what organization you pick the management will undoubtedly voice their want to have nothing but Supermen on staff, i.e., the “best of the best” however, in reality they can’t really handle having nothing but supermen–they are just way too threatening.

So no matter how much you think it’s in your best interest to strive to be Superman every day, the fact is it’s both unsustainable and not in your long-term best interest. Superman knew this and spent most of his time as Clark Kent. And there’s nothing wrong with being Clark Kent. The funny thing is that no matter how Superman-ish you become your boss will search for every conceivable excuse, come performance review time, to prove to you you’re not Superman. The performance review process is as kryptonite was to Superman.

We all will get the occasional opportunity to be a Superman but those opportunities are really few and far between. We need to be content with that. As I’ve written about before, your career path is more a jungle-gym than a straight shot up the elevator–no matter that you may see yourself as a superman. The fact is that it’s after you leave work when you really should want to be Superman–just as Clark Kent only became Superman after he left the Daily Planet.

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