Career Guide

Leadership lessons from Spider-Man

Peter Parker may work solo, but there are still valuable lessons we can learn from him Peter Parker may work solo, but there are still valuable lessons we can learn from him

As a boy, my parents would tell me it was lights out and time to sleep. I would quickly then grab a torch-light and sneak under the blanket to start reading my favourite super-hero comics – The Amazing Spider-Man. I loved reading my Spider-Man comics. The stories were so interesting and Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) was one of the most human super heroes I have ever encountered.

As a young man, Parker went through a tumultuous time. He was a grade A “geek” of the highest order. He was skinny, weak and constantly bullied by his high school “star” Flash Thompson. He was an extremely anti-social boy, with inferiority complex, and a massive fear of women (well, most teenage boys would probably fit into that category including myself, hence the love of Spider-Man comics!).

Even after Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and gets super powers, he still struggles. His Uncle Ben dies due partly to his lack of “responsibility” to stop a crime. Because of this attitude also, his girlfriend Gwen Stacy’s father – New York City police detective captain George Stacy – was killed during a battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus (Issue No.90, November 1970). Stacy, the love of his life and the one person he truly loves soon dies too, when the Green Goblin throws her off the tower of a bridge (Issue No.121 June 1973). What is even more painful for Parker is that the autopsy of her death concluded that, “the whiplash effect she underwent when Spider-Man’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her”.

Parker was a man constantly in pain. Yet, in spite of the constant pain and suffering that he had to undergo throughout his life, he had never let that pain ever distract him from his mission and goal in life – helping all people regardless of age, sex and background.

As I recall the many Spider-Man comics that I have read, I remember how this introverted boy became a young man who married the world’s greatest supermodel and became the greatest ever superhero in the history of comics (at least to me!). That takes some doing.

And so, I decided to list seven leadership lessons that I learnt from Parker. Here goes my list:

1. Be human at all times. Be yourself

Many leaders believe that just because they have big titles and are leaders, they need to act differently and try to avoid human emotions. Parker struggled at many occasions having to behave like a “hero” and not himself. In fact, it caused significant issues with his marriage to Mary Jane. He was reminded by Captain America, who had similarly learnt about the need to not wear masks and be oneself, advising him that “the mask is supposed to hide your face. Don’t let it hide your heart!” Parker took that advice to heart and always remained true to himself and his personality. As leaders, we should never wear masks, especially when dealing with relationships and matters of the heart.

2. Take responsibility

Great leaders take responsibility for their actions – especially the mistakes and failures. Spider-Man leads by example and he not only owns up to his shortcomings and failures, he never blamed others. As his Uncle Ben reminded him “with great power comes great responsibility.” Many leaders don’t realise how much power they hold in their hands. Your employees look up to you. As leaders, every word muttered is analysed and repeated throughout your department or organisation. Even as parents, our children bestow on us significant power.

Do we truly understand the power we hold in our hands and do we, like Spider-Man, take full responsibility of this power? Or are we ignorant of the power we have?

3. Always smile

Spider-Man is always smiling (well, he is in his suit) in spite of the horrible burden he carries and the pain in his life. Losing the love of his life, his parents, his uncle and finally his aunt, having his wife kidnapped and facing death daily. He still retains a sense of humour and keeps smiling. It takes some doing to be the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.” Yet almost all great leaders wear a smile on their face constantly.

I met Nobel Prize winner Mohamad Yunus, who was going through some painful times with his government. Yet we met over breakfast, he smiled throughout the meeting. Great leaders go through tremendous moments of pain and suffering just like all of us do. Yet, they realise the power of the smile and have that on their faces. Do you smile often? Do you express your gratitude often? If Spidey can do it, so can you. Keep being funny and smile.

4. Keep serving others – that is the essence of leadership

Service of others always yields benefits. In the latest Amazing Spider-Man movie, we see how the web-crawler needs the help of a number of crane operators. The help came to him in the moment of need as the crane foreman was the father of a boy Spider-Man had rescued earlier in the movie. It is far more blessed to serve and to give than to receive.

You will reap rewards for your giving at an important stage of your life. It is the same in my life. At a crucial stage of my leadership when I needed some form of help, it suddenly appears. Later, I realise that the help came because I had previously helped that person. Good karma will always return to you if you invest in helping others. Are you serving while leading?

5. Keep persevering

Never let adversity and pain deter you. Spider-Man has a torrid life with things never working out. Yet, he never let that be an excuse to give up. He was never taken hostage by the complex issues that surrounded him. Most people would give up on helping others especially if it meant losing their loved ones. Spider-Man lost his great love Gwen Stacy because of his love for helping others.

He lost his best friend Harry Osborn and many others. In fact, after losing Stacy, he thought he would never find love again. Yet, he kept going and never gave in to the doubt that crept into his mind.

He finally found the amazing Mary Jane who loved him as deeply. Perseverance pays off whether you are building a business or growing your career. You have to keep going and going and things will ultimately go your way.

6. Leadership does not come free

Many leaders forget the cost of leadership. Being a leader requires you to sacrifice time, money, efforts and endure struggles and pain. We always talk about the benefits of leadership, but we fail to count the cost of it. Spider-Man understood the cost of being a superhero. He lost many things including his privacy and family. As leaders, have we counted the cost of leadership? Just as there is cost associated with anything of value, leadership does not come free.

We need to sacrifice a lot of time. Do we count the cost of leadership? Are we aware of what it truly entails? Spider-Man teaches us to count the cost but still choose to be a leader. But if we don’t take time to understand the cost of our leadership, we will give up the moment crisis and issues arise.

7. You don’t need to lead all the time

Spidey is the type who is not a natural leader. Yet in times of crisis or when he is required to lead, he steps up and leads. During the Titanus saga Spider-Man led the likes of Wolverine, the Hulk, Nova, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and others to battle against the alien Titanus. In many occasions, Spider-Man lets others lead. He seamlessly moves from being a loyal and dedicated follower to being a decisive and respected leader.

We all can learn to play different roles at different stages in our organisation. Do we let others lead? And do we know when we need to step in and resume leadership?

Final Thoughts

There are many more lessons that you can learn from Spider-Man. But the most important thing about lessons is to internalise them and leverage them in our lives. May Parker, Spider-Man’s aunt, makes this statement, “I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride.”

Truly, deep down inside us, Spider-Man lingers. We can all learn from Spidey and become great leaders and heroes in the organisation we work with and the families that we lead. So, keep learning and smiling. I wish you a “spidey” career and a wonderful leadership journey ahead.

About Spider-Man

Spider-Man is a comic book superhero published by Marvel Comics. Created by writer-editor Stan Lee and writer-artist Steve Ditko, he first appeared in Amazing Fantasy No.15 (August 1962). Lee and Ditko conceived the character as an orphan being raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and as a teenager, having to deal with the normal struggles of adolescence in addition to those of a costumed crime fighter. Spider-Man’s creators gave him super strength and agility, the ability to cling to most surfaces, shoot spider-webs using devices of his own invention which he called “web-shooters”, and react to danger quickly with his “spider-sense”, enabling him to combat his foes.

When Spider-Man first appeared in the early 1960s, teenagers in superhero comic books were usually relegated to the role of sidekick to the protagonist. The Spider-Man series broke ground by featuring Peter Parker, a teenage high school student and person behind Spider-Man’s secret identity to whose “self-obsessions with rejection, inadequacy, and loneliness” young readers could relate. Spider-Man did not benefit from being the protégé of any adult superhero mentors like Captain America and Batman, and thus had to learn for himself that “with great power there must also come great responsibility” – a line included in a text box in the final panel of the first Spider-Man story, but later retroactively attributed to his guardian, the late Uncle Ben.

Marvel has featured Spider-Man in several comic book series, the first and longest-lasting of which is titled The Amazing Spider-Man. Over the years, the Peter Parker character has developed from a shy, nerdy high school student to a troubled but outgoing college student, to married high school teacher, to, in the late 2000s, a single freelance photographer – his most typical adult role. As of 2011, he is additionally a member of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s flagship superhero teams. In the comics, Spider-Man is often referred to as “Spidey”, “web-slinger”, “wall-crawler”, or “web-head”.

Spider-Man's Life

Growing up in New York City, high school student Peter Parker is a science-whiz orphan living with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. As depicted in Amazing Fantasy No.15 (August 1962), he is bitten by a radioactive spider at a science exhibit and “acquires the agility and proportionate strength of an arachnid.” Along with super strength, he gains the ability to adhere to walls and ceilings. Through his native knack for science, he develops a gadget that lets him fire adhesive webbing of his own design through small, wrist-mounted barrels. Initially seeking to capitalise on his new abilities, he dons a costume and, as “Spider-Man”, becomes a novelty television star. However, “he blithely ignores the chance to stop a fleeing thief, (and) his indifference ironically catches up with him when the same criminal later robs and kills Uncle Ben.” Spider-Man tracks and subdues the killer and learns, in the story’s next-to-last caption, “With great power there must also come – great responsibility!”

Despite his superpowers, Parker struggles to help his widowed aunt pay rent, was taunted by his peers and constantly incurred the editorial wrath of newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson. As he battles his enemies for the first time, Parker finds juggling his personal life and costumed adventures difficult. In time, Parker graduates from high school, and enrols at Empire State University (a fictional institution evoking the real-life Columbia University and New York University), where he meets roommate and best friend Harry Osborn, and girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and Aunt May introduces him to Mary Jane Watson. As Parker deals with Osborn’s drug problems, and Osborn’s father is revealed to be Spider-Man’s nemesis the Green Goblin, Parker even attempts to give up his costumed identity for a while. During the course of his adventures Spider-Man has made a wide variety of friends and contacts within the superhero community, who often come to his aid when he faces problems that he cannot solve on his own.

Working through his grief after the death of his love Stacy, who died when Green Goblin throws her off a bridge, Parker eventually develops tentative feelings toward Watson, and the two “become confidants rather than lovers”. Parker graduates from college in issue No.185, and becomes involved with the shy Debra Whitman and the extroverted, flirtatious costumed thief Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat, whom he meets in issue No.194 (July 1979).

From 1984 to 1988, Spider-Man wore a black costume with a white spider design on his chest. The new costume originated from an alien planet where Spider-Man participates in a battle between Earth’s major superheroes and villains. He continues wearing the costume when he returns from the Secret Wars, starting in The Amazing Spider-Man No.252. Not unexpectedly, the change to a longstanding character’s iconic design met with controversy, “with many hardcore comics fans decrying it as tantamount to sacrilege. Spider-Man’s traditional red and blue costume was iconic, they argued, on par with those of his DC rivals Superman and Batman.” The creators then revealed the costume was an alien symbiote which Spider-Man is able to reject after a difficult struggle, though the symbiote returns several times as Venom for revenge.

Parker proposes to Watson in The Amazing Spider-Man No.290 (July 1987), and she accepts two issues later, with the wedding taking place inThe Amazing Spider-Man Annual No.21 (1987) – promoted with a real-life mock wedding using actors at Shea Stadium, with Stan Lee officiating, on June 5, 1987.

Spider-Man is one of the most popular and commercially successful superheroes. As Marvel’s flagship character and company mascot, he has appeared in many forms of media, including several animated and live-action television shows, syndicated newspaper comic strips, and a series of films starring Tobey Maguire as the “friendly neighbourhood” hero in the first three movies. Andrew Garfield has taken over the role of Spider-Man in a reboot of the films. Reeve Carney stars as Spider-Man in the 2010 Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Spider-Man placed third on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Heroes of All Time in 2011.

Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise passionate about transforming the nation through leadership development. Check out Leaderonomics new beta TV site at for more great tid-bits of wisdom for 2013.