The renowned comic book writer and publisher thought idle talent was bored talent, and bored talent was easy to lose to the competition.
Stan Lee hated to see an idle artist. The renowned comic book writer and publisher, who died recently at 95, 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 Stan made sure to provide continuous employment, sometimes to the detriment of the company.
I studied Lee for my book, “Superbosses.” 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.
“Keep talent busy” was just one of the lessons I took from Lee. A second but equally important one was “Don’t censor talent.” Lee preferred to let his talent sort out the creative details. 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.”
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. 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 favorite artist.
Finally, Stan Lee’s example is a reminder to dream big. Lee felt that comic books had the power to make important social commentary, to be incisive and satirical and smart. 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.
Ultimately, Lee repositioned comics, professionalized the industry and launched the careers of dozens. It’s a legacy any boss would call super.
(Sydney Finkelstein is a professor of strategy and leadership at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.)