Over the weekend I took the time to watch Stan Lee’s Mutants, Monsters and Marvels, a film that consists entirely of an interview between film maker Kevin Smith and Stan Lee. As a kid who grew up loving comics, I loved the unveiling of the world behind the worlds I spent as much time as I could with my imagination: Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, and the list goes on though I’ll stop before daunting anyone without appreciation for such comic book geekdome.
One of the interesting segments dealt with Stan Lee’s approach as the top editor at Marvel. Although the characters we are familiar with are his creations and he would collaborate with artists on the first few releases of books, subsequently other teams of artists and writers would work on their own releases of the characters he created. When Kevin asked how he managed this he waved his hand and said that he found the best way to manage creatives was to leave them alone: that’s how you would get their best work.
Stan Lee seems to be a man of intuition (in the interview he’s matter of fact and terse, less a man of “Big Ideas” and more of “Common Sense” when it comes to managing) but I think he was getting at the management theory that is being articulating these days by Dan Pink. Pink’s ideas have to do with the connection of motivation and better outcomes that are concomitant with employee autonomy. A summary of his ideas as well as their rational basis is in this entertaining animated video from RSA:
Although I do not have any formal disagreements with Pink’s ideas (they are spot on in my book) I think what is telling is his background and where he worked. Some top notch schools and the upper echelons of government imbue a sense of personal worth and require the freedom and tactics he recommends. The same is true with Stan Lee: his management style worked precisely because of the environment he was in and the nature of his work; in comics being creative and motivated as well as finding ways to help your employees in that regard are the name of the game.
What I would add, from the groundling floor, is that in many places it’s not that these theories don’t make sense or aren’t highly empirical (Pink glosses over some behavioral economics although if you really want to dive into the field Dan Ariely is a better start); it’s that different organizations have different goals. As much of a thought bludgeon as it is, the haunting truth is that some places are perfectly happy trading out creativity, autonomy, and the requisite unpredictability associated with them.