Waiting for Superman–What Superhero Nonprofit Leaders Actually Resemble and Why We Need More

With a much talked about leadership gap on the horizon, we need to support the developing group of new leaders.

Everyone is talking about the movie “Waiting for Superman”, a powerful and alarming documentary about America’s failing public school system. The title “Waiting for Superman” comes from a quote in the film from educational reformer Geoffrey Canada where he states “one of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist…she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.” One of the themes is that there are great individuals working in the educational reform space, everyday “superheroes” that do amazing work in very challenging environments.

The solution to these issues and others that we face as a nation will not be solved by this “Superman” approach. Several leaders I know stated that once Barack Obama became President Obama that many of the issues that they were working on would be more easily solved. Some have stated, especially in this time of tough economic decisions, that they were hoping for a large funder to help revive their efforts. Having lived in poverty and made it out, I know that the mentality conveyed by Mr. Canada is one that many people living in poverty often have.

That causes need a saving-type of superhero like Superman is a flawed outlook. But, if we had to point to a superhero-type that the sector should be looking to, that model is the Greatest American Hero. For those that do not know this superhero, it is understandable (the show’s theme song has had more of a shelf life than the actual show, which only lasted for two years in the early 1980’s). The song made a resurgence in the 1990’s as George Costanza’s outgoing voicemail message.

The Greatest American Hero is centered around the main character, Ralph Hinkley. Ralph is a teacher of special education students who is determined to get through to them, much like the teachers in the Waiting for Superman movie. Ralph takes the class on a field trip to the desert and as they come back from the field trip later that night, the school bus breaks down.  As Ralph wanders the desert looking for help, he is visited by aliens, who have decided to endow him with superhuman powers to fight the battle against injustice and crime. To this end, they gave him a special suit and an instruction manual. Unfortunately, Ralph loses the instruction manual, and the show follows Ralph as he fights crime and learns how to use his new powers. Ralph obtains a support team that helps him as he works to fight crime and injustice.

As we think about the type of superheroes that we need in the sector, I would conclude that most of our organizational leaders look more like Ralph than Superman. They are ordinary people that were already doing great work. Like Ralph coming to his abilities as a teacher in the special education field, most nonprofit leaders start out working in the trenches.

Secondly, most nonprofit leaders do not come already equipped with laser vision, the ability to fly or even a special suit like Ralph.  We obtain our cape over time, and it becomes a more successful tool as a nonprofit leader gains more experience in the field. In addition, we don’t have access to an instruction manual and often learn the valuable truths of leadership as we go. Ralph’s comedic circumstances would often provide him knowledge for later crime fighting quests. I can think of my own comedic leadership war stories as a CEO that guided my work.

Overall, the sector has many superheroes and we need more. The superheroes we need are less like Superman and more like Ralph, ordinary people who are dedicated and find themselves suddenly in leadership roles. With a much talked about leadership gap on the horizon we need to support the important developing group of new leaders.

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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  • There are redundant orgs in the US (1.5 million) which means 5-10 board members wasting their time reinventing the same solutions some other org already has. More collaboration and much consolidation is need. UnitedWay should become a cloud computing platform making SAAS available to all member orgs. Open source would make it as inexpensive as possible.

  • BY Reinhart Law

    ON October 12, 2010 09:30 AM

    Several industry professionals will discuss nonprofit board governance and other hot topics in a free Webinar on Oct. 18.


    The presenters will cover:
    • IRS Standards on Director Independence in Nonprofit Organizations

    • How should a tax-exempt organization analyze ongoing director independence?

    • The “Lead Director” Concept

    • How does a Lead Director become designated?

    • When do financial or business interests of directors affect director independence?

    • Competency-based Governance

    • Board Leadership Succession Planning

    • Implications of Independence Requirements for Board and Committee Composition

    • Best Practices in Handling Conflicts of Interest

  • J Yarnell's avatar

    BY J Yarnell

    ON October 13, 2010 12:26 AM

    I agree and believe there are even more reasons to avoid the ‘Superman’ approach to social problems. While one person with extraordinary talent or a willingness to make great personal sacrifices can accomplish more than an ordinary individual, it doesn’t scale. Social entrepreneurs should strive for solutions that can be broadly applied to deliver value that accrues to a large number of people. Superman types may do a lot, but even they have limits.

    Further, relying on super human talent or effort is not sustainable. Eventually a ‘Superman’ social entrepreneur burns out or is unable to serve the mission. If leadership and has not become systemic to the organization, then it’s value and effectiveness quickly fade.

    The solution is a social entrepreneur leader who can create an organization that embodies his/her passion and energy, and that leverages the strengths of its other participants in a way that is scalable and sustainable.

  • BY Susan Sharma

    ON October 14, 2010 10:01 PM

    I agree with J Yarnell.  Ultimately “teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to achieve uncommon results.”

  • BY Michael Charter

    ON October 15, 2010 04:32 PM

    A bit off topic; however, 60 Minutes will be airing a segment this coming Sunday, October 17th, covering Veterans Village of San Diego’s National Stand Down for Homeless Veterans, an organization that has been referred to as the “Gold Standard” for Veterans Rehabilitation by the immediate past Secretary of Veterans Affairs.  This organization exemplifies total team commitment to accomplish their mission.  The Board of Directors is not your typical Board.  They are a participative Board in various functions but, as they should, leave the day to day operation of this unique and highly successful organization to it’s executive management team.  Catch 60 Minutes and visit the URL above to learn more about this great group of professionals assisting Veterans of all conflicts/eras. 
    Michael Charter, Director
    Patriots Choice - Veterans Policy Advocates

  • Ron Sim's avatar

    BY Ron Sim

    ON August 24, 2011 11:50 AM

    The “superman” spoken of and waited for existed only in the anecdote about Canada hoping someone would help him as a child. He says that he thought he could solve all of our public school system’s problems but was faced with an entrenched system and bureaucracy. Essentially, the theme seems to be that we must all help to solve our public school system’s problems.

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