Author interview: David Kahn

Today’s author interview is with David Kahn, author of Cape, Spandex, Briefcase – Leadership Lessons from Superheroes. David is a leadership expert, author, and founder of leadersaywhat, an online resource for people looking to develop their leadership skills. We delve into his inspiration behind the book, why superheroes make for such a compelling read and what – in his opinion – makes a successful leader.


So, tell us a little about your new book, Cape, Spandex, Briefcase.

“Cape, Spandex, Briefcase” discusses ways we can be better leaders by citing popular superheroes. Through the lens of Superman, Spider-Man and their costumed companions, the book presents practical tools and skills to address leadership responsibilities and increase the readers’ ability to influence, motivate and earn respect.

A good leader, in general, possesses industry-related expertise, communication abilities, and analytic skills. Great leaders have all of this, plus the courage to take responsibility, a clear vision, an ability to inspire, the capacity to endure setbacks, and a genuine interest in others’ success. Throw in a pleasant personality and you have someone who is unstoppable.


Where did you get the inspiration for it? Why did you choose superheroes as the landscape in which to look for leadership lessons?

As a long time comic book reader, I’ve always considered the applicable lessons from superheroes. It’s not about the superpower-based feats, per se, but about the ways they react to dangerous situations, their motivation to help people they do not know, and the personality differences between a hero and their arch villain.

These reflections remained part of my inner dialogue until around five years ago. During a leadership training that I was facilitating, the session was dragging to the point where even I was beginning to lose interest. Without much forethought I asked, “What makes Batman such a great leader?” The room grew quiet and then exploded with information. Everything they weren’t saying when we were talking about leadership as a general concept became more engaging by attaching a fictional character. Ever since, it’s become a tool I use to break down inhibition and connect with the audience.


Speaking of leadership, we know that looking at practice of leadership is a massive part of what you do. Tell us the story behind ‘leadersayswhat’, why leadership is so important to you.

What affects people’s lives more than leadership? It impacts the way we were raised, our career, how we pray, and the laws that dictate society. Leaders make hundreds of decisions a day that directly impact the lives of those on their team and will indirectly have collateral repercussions throughout the general public.

That’s why I began writing on leadersayswhat. I found that many leaders have the ambition and capability, but lack the training. At the same time, there is incredible research taking place that is not accessible or decipherable for non-academics. leadersayswhat condenses the research findings into consumable chunks and adds some entertaining pop culture examples so everyone can benefit from the immense wealth of information that is available.


What do you think is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

Fear. There’s a fear of risk. A fear of change. A fear of failure. Once a leader can overcome these insecurities, they are far more likely to reach their potential.


What is one characteristic you believe every leader must possess to succeed? Conversely, what is the one behaviour or trait that believe can seriously derail a good leader?

The more successful, engaging leaders I’ve worked with tend to be those who display courage. They are willing to make tough decisions, amidst differing opinions and at the risk of being disliked. They inspire through their actions, modelling their high expectations. And they act for the betterment of the team and its vision, putting aside self-serving interests.

As for a more harmful trait, I’ve seen many capable leaders lose their way once they started to believe that they were somehow superior to those under their tutelage. Besides the obvious negative perceptions associated with pompous behavior, humility allows the leader to remain open to other’s advice and avoid the trappings of becoming insolated.


Which book (business or otherwise) would you say has had the greatest impact on you? Why?

The first business book that affected me was “Lincoln on Leadership” by Donald T. Phillips. I read it while in high school and was captivated by the ways these leadership concepts were applied to someone I had studied and admired. It re-framed my view of Abraham Lincoln and how I view all people in a leadership role.


What are a few resources you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?

You mean besides my book? Just kidding! Improving leadership skills starts with introspection and honest self-analysis. If you can put ego aside and delve into your weaknesses, you have a better chance of making meaningful improvements. A mentor or executive coach can be helpful; co-workers have agendas and family/friends are too nice. You need someone whose only interest is in making you a more effective leader.


What do you do personally to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?

Being an effective leader requires endless maintenance; there is no “finish line”. To remain current and explore new ideas, I read books, trade magazines, and research papers. I observe other leaders, but more valuably, I speak with them to understand why they’ve made particular decisions and I pose hypothetical questions about how they would have handled the situation if certain details had been different. And most importantly, whenever I learn something new, I immediately attempt to implement it.


Last but not least, which superhero do you think would make a brilliant entrepreneur and why?

I’m not sure whether they are the best leaders, but Tony Stark/Iron Man and Ray Palmer/Atom are incredibly successful (comic book) entrepreneurs. Notwithstanding their billion dollar enterprises, Tony and Ray are able to take imaginative, high concept ideas and through determination, endurance and intelligence, execute their concepts to fruition.

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