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Twelve Tons

Leadership Lessons from the Black Panther

By now, I think most of the world has seen the movie Black Panther, which has garnered critical acclaim and gained financial success. I won't critique the plot or make comments about the movie's BlackPantherPicsocial significance, for there are others more qualified to do that than I. Of the many things that impressed me as I watched the movie, however, there was one theme to which I do feel qualified to speak and that is the issue of leadership. Don't worry, if you have not seen the movie, I am not about to reveal any of the plot. If you have seen the movie, let's go back and look at three of the main characters: King T'Chaka, his son T'Challa, and T'Chaka's nephew and T'Challa's cousin named Erik, who assumed the name Killmonger after he ascended the throne.


Let's start with the man who became the Black Panther after a duel with his cousin T'Challa. Erik or Killmonger was a military operative who was trained by the U.S. government to kill and destroy. When Killmonger became Wakanda's leader, he was the epitome of a leader who was not prepared for leadership. For him, power was to be used for revenge and domination. He became intoxicated with his position and the authority that came with it, and was determined to wipe out his enemies and reward his friends, who would in a matter of time become his enemies.

KillmongerPicThat is because leaders who use their power for personal gain or to further their selfish ends, even if those ends will benefit some people, have no friends. They cannot trust anyone, and history bears this out that those who operate from a power base are suspicious of anyone who may siphon away any portion of their power.

Consider Herod the Great of biblical fame. He was said to have killed his wife and two sons, and then mourned them for the rest of his life. Why did he kill them? He did so because he perceived them to be "against" him and a threat to his power. Why did Herod have all the male children killed in Bethlehem after he learned of Jesus' birth? Even though he was old and near the end of his life, Herod could not bear the thought of someone in his land who would have a claim to his power, the power he had gained and preserved through deceit, bribery, and brute force.


In the movie, we learn that both T'Chaka and T'Challa were royalty and had prepared to handle power all their lives. They had a royal mindset and used their power to serve the best interests of their nation and their people. Yet, both of them had to face difficult situations for which their were no guidebooks or directions. T'Challa came to find out what his father had done that helped create the Killmonger persona and he was shocked and dismayed, telling his father in a vision that he had failed as a king and leader.

Yet, when T'Challa woke up from his vision, he embarked on a plan to try and wrest the throne away BlackPantherPic2from his cousin the Killmonger and ended up committing the same act against his cousin that his king father had carried out against his own brother, T'Challa's uncle. In the end, T'Challa announced that there would be changes in the kingdom of Wakanda and that their technology and knowledge would no longer be hidden or hoarded, but would be used to help others.

The point is that even though T'Chaka and T'Challa were prepared to lead and handle the power that comes with it, they still struggled to know how to use that power. They left themselves open to be second-guessed, as all leaders must do, because leadership power is neutral until leaders apply their leadership and personal values systems to that power and utilize it. Then, peoples' lives are impacted and they will deploy their own personal values system to evaluate what the leaders have done. 

That is why newly-elected officials have the goodwill of the people until they make decisions. Those decisions will please some and displease others, and those leaders then find what the father-and-son duo in Black Panther discovered: Even if one has prepared to lead all his or her life, it's a tough job that involves decisions and judgments about how to use power.

In the end, the Black Panther made the right decision, for the most appropriate and the safest thing to do with leadership power is to give it away in the service of others so they can be empowered. Yet even that decision is fraught with danger and controversy, for then people will question the way or the speed with which the power is used or distributed. I came away from the movie desiring to use my leadership power effectively, while realizing that goal is subject to my own limitations, which is why leadership preparation is a lifetime pursuit one never fully achieves.


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