X-Men: Are Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr First Class Leaders?

Today’s post was written by Chris Mann, a new member of the SOS Leadership team.

Leadership is like air.  You may not see it or think about it, but it’s everywhere.  And sometimes, you find it the places you least expect.

I encountered leadership in an unexpected place on Father’s Day.  I was winding down my day with a movie and some popcorn.  The film was X-Men: First Class.  I was expecting a great action movie with some of my favorite superheroes, which I got.  But as a bonus, I also got a tour de force display of some of the best and worst aspects of leadership, manifested in the two main protagonists, Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr

Charles Xavier is a mutant with extraordinary mental powers ranging from reading minds to halting people in their tracks.  He grows up studying genetics and does his thesis on the possibility of genetic mutation leading to special powers in some humans.

Our other lead is Erik Lensherr.  He is Jewish.  As a young boy he is placed in a concentration camp with his mother.  His power, which first manifests when soldiers separate Erik from his mother, is the ability to manipulate magnetic fields.  He is terrified and angry, and his magnetic powers almost tear down the gate separating him from his mother.  A sadistic doctor, Sebastian Shaw, who is also a mutant, notices Erik’s powers and  teaches him that his power comes from his anger, and that he is essentially a weapon.

Charles and Erik unite to fight a common enemy (Shaw) and prevent a third world war.  They recruit a handful of mutants to help them, and Shaw has done the same.

By the end, Charles’ and Erik’s friendship is split.  Erik perceives mutants to be superior to humans.  He thinks war between humans and mutants is inevitable and wants to begin preparing for battle.  Charles is more hopeful.  He recognizes that mutants will suffer as outcasts for a time but has hope that eventually humans and mutants can live peacefully together.

This is when the ongoing leadership theme really comes together.  In the final few moments of the movie, all of the mutant recruits must choose who they wish to follow.  Despite drastically different worldviews, both Charles and Erik ended with a group of followers.

Both men clearly have leadership qualities.  I will argue that in many respects, Erik comes off as the stronger leader.  But if this is the case, why do we instinctively gravitate towards Charles Xavier as the better leader and hero?

I think the reason can be found in a quote from General Norman Schwarzkopf who said, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”

A leader must first have a vision.  It may be a worldview or it may be a more specific goal, but in either case it is a leader’s job to see through what is and look instead at what could be.   Then the leader’s task is to make that possibility a reality.

The vision must resonate in order to generate a following.  When a leader has a compelling vision, people will buy in and follow.

The fundamental worldviews of Charles and Erik as leaders is captured in the below conversation they have over a game of chess.

  • Erik Lehnsherr: What started as a covert mission, tomorrow mankind will know mutants exist. Shaw, us, they won’t differentiate. They’ll fear us. And that fear will turn to hatred.
  • Professor Charles Xavier: Not if we stop a war, not if we can prevent Shaw, not if we risk our lives doing so.
  • Erik Lehnsherr: Would they do the same for us?
  • Professor Charles Xavier: We have it in us to be the better men.
  • Erik Lehnsherr: After tomorrow, they are gonna turn on us. But you are blinded because you believe they are all like Moira.
  • Professor Charles Xavier: And you believe they are all like Shaw.

Seeing the world around, Erik approaches from a standpoint believing the worst in people.  Charles chooses to believe and hope for the best in everyone.

And each has a vision for the future based on their worldviews.

Erik paints a vivid picture in which the persecution the mutants have already -experienced will only get worse. He believes the worst in humanity and wants to be prepared.  His vision is a world in which mutants rule and eventually become the norm.

In addition, Erik is intelligent and powerful. He has an immediately actionable plan to prepare for war.  His followers see that he is capable of making this vision a reality, and his determination to do so.

“You’re better, and the world should know it,” is the message he  sends.

In contrast, Charles’ vision is one of hope.  His best response to Erik is a desperate, “It doesn’t have to be this way.  We can help humans and mutants get along.”    To one of the persecuted, Erik’s vision of liberation seems much more compelling than just a hope that things can improve.

While Erik has a lot going for him, we are still naturally inclined to follow Charles Xavier.  And it comes down to one thing.

Charles Xavier doesn’t have a plan.  He doesn’t tap into the powerful emotions of pain and fear.

But he has character.  He is willing to make the difficult and painful sacrifices that doing the right thing always seems to entail.

He has belief in humanity and his followers.  He seeks to uplift and draw the best out of all whom he encounters.  He values the dignity of all people.

Erik only has the “strategy” that General Schwarzkopf speaks of.   Charles Xavier has the character of a leader, and character will always come out on top.

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