Which X-Men Leader do You Need as Your Work Partner: Storm or Cyclops?

“Who Will Lead Them?” read the caption on the front cover of Uncanny X-Men # 201 – one of the first comic books I bought as a then-9-year-old in 1986. The cover showed two characters battling for leadership of the team: Cyclops, the team’s original leader and a master strategist who had back-up plans for all his back-up plans (“‘Plan B’ implies we have only 26,” he once said); and Storm, the soul and moral compass of the team who mentored younger members to both develop their skills and to accept others just as they are (also revered by some as a goddess). Who will lead them indeed? Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops – the Task Leader – or Ororo Munroe, a.k.a. Storm – the Social Leader?

You may already be familiar with the ideas of Task Leadership and Social Leadership – if you’re not, the concept is fairly self-explanatory. Task Leaders focus on the completion of tasks and goals; they are driven by metrics and clear-cut results. This is common in the business world, and in upper management positions in particular. Task leaders aren’t always liked – they can even be unpleasant to be around – but they get things done. Social Leaders focus on building relationships and developing a sense of community that can be inspirational, but sometimes lacks the granular details to succeed as a team. Social leaders can be greatly valued by their team, but without the task focus to balance them out there can be a growing sense of “what exactly are we doing here?”

To “x-plain” the X-Men a little… as a boy in the English countryside in the mid 1980s, I went to school with, and became friends with, children who were – almost without exception – white and middle-class, with (broadly) similar life experiences to my own. So it may be no surprise that when a friend introduced me to American comic books, the X-Men instantly jumped out at me. This was an international, multicultural, and ethnically diverse group of “mutant” super heroes, each born with powers that manifest in puberty, and which make them hated and feared by the wider populace, including, in many cases, their own human parents. Due in part to the timing of the comic’s launch in September, 1963, mutants have often been discussed as an allegory for the civil rights struggle, with arch-enemies/old friends Professor X and Magneto compared to MLK and Malcom X (this theory quickly falls apart, however, and as they became more developed, the characters were, in fact, based more on Jewish leaders David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin). In more recent times a more natural metaphor has become apparent: mutants as a story-telling device for the queer and trans experience. Indeed, these days queer and trans representation in the both the characters and creators on the various X-Men comics is higher than any other line of comics. And the questions of leadership, representation, culture, and even nation-building have continually deepened since the comic’s launch 60 years ago. (The themes are also continually misunderstood, as demonstrated within hours of this piece being written, by Florida Republican lawmaker Webster Barnaby, who referred to the X-Men in his characterization of trans people as “mutants,” “demons,” and “imps…”).

Going back to the question on the cover: who did lead them? Well, despite having recently lost her super power to control weather, Storm handily defeated Cyclops in five pages, becoming the first woman of color – in fact, the first person of color – to lead a super hero team (a few months later, Monica Rambeau, known at the time as Captain Marvel, became leader of The Avengers; it’s noteworthy that during the second half of the 1980s when comics were largely consumed by white males, Marvel’s two top-selling teams were led by Black women). But the story didn’t end here. Without Cyclops’ strategic support to balance out Storm’s own leadership, the team struggled in many of their battles over the next few years, eventually laying down their lives to save the world from an ancient mystical threat called The Adversary (only to be resurrected soon after by Merlin’s daughter Roma to live secretly in the Australian outback because… well, comic books, everybody!). Without Storm to balance Cyclops out, he too struggled with his own team (X-Factor), effectively abandoning his wife and newborn son because he was too consumed by his work.

At this point, you may be identifying more with either Cyclops or Storm. Are you the Task Leader, Cyclops? Or the Social Leader, Storm? Neither is better or worse than the other; both have key strengths and core weaknesses. But either one without the other can lead to significant challenges on your team: dissatisfaction, bitterness, resentment, and resignations. Away from the context of super hero soap operas, how can it be helpful to think about Task Leadership and Social Leadership this week?

This Week’s Tip:

  • Self-identify as a Task Leader or a Social Leader. For many of us, the answer will be obvious. If it’s not, ask someone you trust – they’ll be able to tell you without much hesitation. Of course, the answer may be context specific, and the reality is much more fluid than binary, but aim to identify where you tend to lean in a work setting.
  • Identify your counterpart, and elevate them. If you’re a Task Leader, look for who your Social Leaders are within your team. If you’re a Social Leader, look for who your Task Leaders are. Listen to them more, and elevate their role – if not officially, then by showing you value what they bring to the team, and inviting them to contribute their Task/Social skills more within the team.
  • Be on the lookout for people with complementary skillsets to you throughout your life. In your friends, your family, and elsewhere, don’t shy away from those who are the Task Leader to your Social Leader (or vice versa). Lean into what they bring to your life and notice the ways you complement each other.

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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