What Stan Lee knew about managing creative people4 min read . Updated: 11 Dec 2018, 08:26 PM IST
The creative giant was also a superboss who knew that spotting, nurturing and developing talent is what creates great impact at the workplace
Stan Lee hated to see an idle artist. The renowned comic book writer and publisher, who died at 95 last month, thought idle talent was bored talent, and bored talent was easy to lose to the competition. It also personally bothered him that the people in his employ might be scrambling to earn enough money. So Lee made sure to provide continuous employment, sometimes to the detriment of the company.
More the merrier
In one famous anecdote, Lee doled out more assignments than the company needed—and didn’t bother to tell boss Martin Goodman about the extraneous inventory. He stuffed the extra comic books into a closet, intending to use them when the time was right. When Goodman saw the closet, he ordered Lee to fire everyone in the bullpen. Lee followed his boss’s orders. But he still felt it was a mistake—he needed to assign the extra stories, he argued, in order to invest in his people.
I studied Lee for my book, Superbosses and I believe a superboss isn’t just a really good boss. They don’t just build an organization or surpass a revenue target; they identify, train, and build a new pipeline of talent. The way Jon Stewart’s Daily Show launched the careers of new comedians, or Alice Waters launched the careers of new chefs. Through spotting, nurturing and developing talent, superbosses—like comic book superheroes—have an outsized impact.
Keep the workflow
Keep talent busy was just one of the lessons I took from Lee’s example. A second, but equally important lesson, was don’t censor talent. Lee preferred to let his talent sort out the creative details. He remembered working on a comic strip that used the word pogo stick in the punch line. The editor felt that pogo stick wouldn’t resonate with rural audiences, and he instructed Lee to change the gag so that the punchline had the word roller skates instead. It deflated the joke, but Lee changed it anyway. The strip was eventually dropped, and Lee said, “This type of censorship, to me, is almost indecent." When you hire an artist to do a job, you let them do the job. Lee elaborated, “It seems to me that if a person is doing something creatively, and he feels that’s the way it ought to be done, you’ve gotta let him do it."
Lee put his words into action years later when the Hulk, a Marvel franchise, became the subject of a popular prime-time television show. He was amazed to see how the creative team transformed the Hulk for this new medium, and he was glad to stay out of their way. “I learned a helluva lot about TV from Ken Johnson during the many discussions we had about how to best adapt The Incredible Hulk to television. The success of that show, under Ken’s direction, proves beyond any doubt how important it is to put creative projects in the hands of truly creative people." Lee enjoyed being fairly hands off as a boss, and extended that courtesy even to younger staffers, who more-traditional bosses might have said were too green.
Share the glory
A third lesson I took from Lee’s example: Give credit where it’s due. It sounds so straightforward, but in reality, it’s very rare. One way Lee gave credit was by creating a credits page, written in a chatty tone. The credits page was unique in comics; up until then the artists drawing and inking the panels had remained anonymous. The credits might read something like this: “Written with Passion by Stan Lee. Drawn with Pride by Jack Kirby. Inked with Perfection by Joe Sinnott. And lettered with a Scratchy Pen by Artie Simek." He also talked about the staff frequently in his monthly newsletter The Bullpen Bulletin. These shout-outs occasionally changed or shaped the careers of the people in his department. For instance, in the middle of his career, artist Jack Kirby was nicknamed the “King of Comics" by Lee, and he reported that he was the “artists’ artist". To this day, Kirby is known as the King of Comics, or “King Kirby". This kind of publicity was not only good for the artists, but made it possible for a young reader to become particularly devoted to their favourite artist. It branded certain artists as Marvel artists, enabled readers to feel another level of intimacy with the product, and allowed Lee to promote the careers and further the professionalization of the field, another passion of Lee’s.
Finally, Lee’s example is a reminder to dream big. There’s no better way to motivate the best people. “We’re trying to elevate the medium," he once said. “We’re trying to make [comics] as respectable as possible." Lee felt that comic books had the power to make important social commentary, to be incisive and satirical, and smart. He believed that a day would come when an intelligent adult wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen walking down the street with a comic strip, and he constantly pushed towards that goal. He suggested that comics should be studied at the college level, saying, “If people are going to study movies, TV, opera, ballet, concert, sculpture, painting, and other media, they might as well study comic books because comic books are just as profound and strong a factor in shaping, and moving, and moulding people’s thoughts." He argued there was no reason comics shouldn’t be seen as viable art. That attitude drew the best artists to want to work with him.
Lee wasn’t perfect—no person is. Ultimately, he repositioned comics, professionalized the industry and launched the careers of dozens of protégés. It’s a legacy any boss would call super.
This article was first published on hbrascend.org. HBR Ascend is a digital learning platform for graduating students and millennials.