34 Leadership Lessons from Avengers: Endgame
Credit: besthdwallpaper.com // Marvel Studios
Spoilers Ahead! If you haven’t seen the movie and want to enjoy it without spoilers, STOP READING NOW!
You’ve been warned.
I have been reading Marvel comics since I was in grade school. And watching The Avengers characters and Infinity Gauntlet saga play out on the big screen has been an amazing thrill ride.
Seeing the characters from a new perspective has helped me to think about these childhood heroes in a new light.
Which led me to tease out 34 Leadership Lessons from Avengers: Endgame. This is the definitive guide to leadership lessons from the movie.
Seriously, I’ve looked.
I discuss lessons that touch on vision, leadership development, and conflict resolution, just to name a few.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to this post contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Even if you aren’t a fan of superhero movies (like that’s a thing) look at this like a case study dissected into bite-sized, easily implemented pieces.
Avengers Endgame was everything you could have hoped for in an epic interstellar, superhero summer blockbuster series finale. You had highly charged emotional moments, you had goodbyes, you had unexpected plot twists and for me a lot of leadership lessons that could be teased out. I am always looking for novel, practical, relatable leadership insights for my coaching, training or speaking and Endgame did not disappoint.
Note for my hardcore fans: I’m writing this from memory after seeing the movie once so if I don’t get all of the quotes exactly correct, cut me a bit of slack. Thanks internet! ”
Here are the top 34 Leadership Lessons I saw in Avengers: Endgame (in no specific order)
In Avengers: Infinity War Thor has a chance to stop Thanos for good, but only wounds him with Stormbreaker. Thanos sarcastically shares that Thor should have “gone for the head.” This insight from Thanos eats away at Thor for years. The decision he made, to wound and not kill Thanos virtually consumes him. When given the opportunity again in Endgame, Thor doesn’t hesitate.
Leadership Lesson: Leadership is about making decisions and often mistakes are made. You will make mistakes, the question is can you learn from them and become better because of them. Mistakes are incredible teachers.
At the end of Infinity War, Dr. Strange told Tony Stary/Iron Man that 14,000,605 possible futures and in only 1 of them they won. Talk about a cliff hanger. Dr. Strange wielding the time stone was able to see all of the potential futures and only saw 1 victory and even that victory would be hard fought. In the heat of battle as Thanos has intercepted the Stark/Hulk Buster gauntlet, Strange looks at Tony and raises his index finger reminding him that there is only 1 scenario where they win. He refused to share this information earlier when Tony asked him about the odds, saying that if he told him it wouldn’t happen.
One of my favorite bosses had a knack for sharing just enough information about a project to get me excited about it and then as I made progress he shared more. Before I knew it I was traveling the world standing up an entire consulting division for the company. His initial ask was for me to do some recruiting. He innately understood how to engage his team by sharing big projects in bit-sized portions.
Leadership Lesson: Using information strategically can lead to better engagement and help your team members to grow within their comfort zones.
After Ragnarok, Asgard was gone. After Thanos in Infinity War, we didn’t know if any Asgardians were left alive. In Endgame we see that some Asgardians have in fact survived and they are rebuilding. But Thor, their rightful leader, is no where to be found. The Asgardians still looked to Thor for leadership because he was their King, but he was no longer fulfilling that role. He had abandoned his responsibilities and was holed up playing Fortnite, intimidating NoobMaster69 and other 12 year olds online.
Leadership Lesson: Positional power only gets you so far. Effective, transformational leadership happens with people. Real leadership is hard work. With or without a title your actions determine whether you are a leader.
While Thor was obsessing about his mistake (not killing Thanos see point 1) Valkyrie was leading New Asgard. She was making sure that the day-to-day necessities of life and survival were taken care of. It appears that she empowered herself. She saw what needed to be done and did it.
Leadership Lesson: The important leadership lesson here is to not interfere when people are effective and getting stuff done. Thor could have thrown his title around but she was getting results. Many leaders find it intimidating when someone on their team and more importantly below them on the org chart empowers themselves to get things done. This is a good thing but only if you are secure in your role.
Probably one of the most unexpected scenes in Endgame occurred at Thor’s house. We find him out of shape, unshaven, probably unwashed, with Korg (and I think Meek was there) playing Fortnite. Korg, a would-be rabblerouser and rebellion leader, not to mention 8 foot tall man made of stone, was being bullied by what we can only assume was a child and needed Thor to handle the situation. More about this idea here.
Leadership Lesson: Even though Korg looked like he could have been a leader, he didn’t have the temperament for leadership. If he couldn’t stand up to NoobMaster69 online how could he stand up to Hulk or Captain Marvel? Sometimes our unconscious biases peg one person for leadership and disqualify another. Consider your team and think about who your aspiring leaders are based on actions not on appearance.
Okay, the name “Time Heist” is laughable but so is the person who brought it up. Ant Man is the class clown of the series (maybe tied with Starlord). He’s an ex-con who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He doesn’t have any natural abilities and isn’t really the brightest bulb in the pack. That said, it’s this guy who comes up with the plan to undo the “snap of destiny.” Yeah, I know right?
Leadership Lesson: Leverage all of your team members, even the ones you don’t think as highly of. If you’ve hired well, everyone on your team is competent and capable. It’s easy to focus on the high-performers and miss out on ideas, insights, and solutions from other members of your team. Part of your leadership responsibility is to help everyone on your team grow and develop. Just think of it as brainstorming where there are no bad ideas and some of your people might surprise you.
When Tony Stark, generally the smartest guy in the room, heard about the “time heist” he was incredulous. He thought it was utter nonsense for a number of reasons. But after reflecting on it and then solving the problem he was 100% on board. He needed to process the idea and have it make sense to him before he could get there.
Leadership Lesson: Just because someone doesn’t jump onboard immediately doesn’t mean they won’t jump on board eventually. People need time to process new ideas and different perspectives. Give it to them. In my leadership courses I demonstrate how not helping people see the upside or just the other side of a new idea is a major reason most change effort struggle or fail.
At the beginning of the movie as the Avengers have Thanos contained he tells them that he has destroyed the stones. They don’t want to or can’t believe that the stones are gone. As they press Thanos for more information, Nebula says her father is many things but a liar he is not. In this moment Thanos realized, all too late, that he should have treated Nebula better. Afterall, Nebula is now on the other side trying to undo his work. Thanos was a ruthless, tyranical leader and it caught up with him.
Leadership Lesson: Treat your people well. People don’t work for you, they work with you and that is a choice. One Gallop Poll found that most people leave their jobs because of their immediate manager. I recently wrote about how to treat people when things go wrong. Become the team cheerleader and motivator. This scene is especially poignant for leaders: think “et tu brute?”
Leadership requires vision. Yeah, I know you know that. I dealt with the differences between leadership and management here. Thanos had many, many flaws in his plan but he did have a big vision. Steve Jobs famously said he wanted to “make a dent in the universe.” Thanos wanted to fundamentally alter the universe. As far as vision goes, that’s a big one.
Leadership Lesson: Vision is fundamental and non-optional to leadership. With a grand enough vision you can make a dent in the universe. Without a compelling vision you won’t have the juice to motivate your team to start the journey. Take time to work on your vision, make compelling, make it something that your team will want to be a part of. This article can help you get moving in the right direction. Here are some examples of vision statements.
So Thanos gets style points for having a reshape-the-universe sized vision, unfortunately that vision was in the wrong direction. He thought that the universe was out of balance and on an unsustainable growth trajectory. His vision was to remove 50% of all life in the universe so that the remaining 50% could flourish. What?!!
Thanos’ vision led him to genocide, war, bloodshed, all in the name of “the greater good” but what if there was another way? My teenage son offered another approach. Why not double the resources in the universe? Same outcome, different approach.
Leadership Lesson: Make sure that your big vision benefits more than the bottom line. What’s the end result? Is the path you’ve chosen the best path for you, your team, your organization, your community, the environment? Or is it just the first idea that popped into your head? Bounce it off of people who have different values and see how they react. Be careful not to rationalize doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
A great vision is just words until you decide to act on it. Thanos raised an army, built an empire, waged a universe-wide war to see his vision fulfilled. That’s dedication. Dedication in the wrong direction (see point 10), but massive dedication none-the-less.
Leadership Lesson: What does your vision require? Team, capital, research, partners? Creating and casting a compelling vision is important, time-consuming work, but realizing the vision is impossible without resources. Often grand visions are derailed by a lack of resource allocation. Listen to JFK’s Moon Speech again, or for the first time. Listen to his command of the situation and understanding of the resources needed to accomplish the vision.
There’s a scene in the movie after the Avengers have successfully completed the “Time Heist” when they have the stones in the gauntlet that Tony made to channel their energy. It’s time to decide who will wield the gauntlet and Thor steps up and so does Professor Hulk. (Professor Hulk is the name of the Banner/Hulk synergy btw.) This is a big job that would kill almost everyone else in the room. Professor Hulk puts on the gauntlet and snaps his fingers.
Leadership Lesson: Often doing the difficult jobs falls to the leader. I often coach my clients that there are things that anyone can do and things that only they can do and it’s their job to know the difference. With great power comes great responsibility. Make sure you are doing the things that only you can do and “delegating” them to others.
The Avengers are obsessed with undoing Thanos’ “snap of destiny”. They thought that’s how the stones worked. They got stuck seeing the solution as a snap when they could have fist pumped, air guitared, done the exploding hand fist bump or even jazz-handed. Well maybe jazz hands was a bridge too far, but you know what I mean. Thanos used the gauntlet a number of different ways in Infinity War, but they got stuck.
Leadership Lesson: The way things worked yesterday may not be right for today or may not work with your leadership style or personality. Be creative in how you address and solve problems. Don’t be limited to someone else’s solutions, find your own.
One of my favorite aspects of this franchise is that this team struggles. In every movie there are crises. One movie was called Civil War and it wasn’t a reenactment! This team is far from perfect, but they are effective, mostly. They dropped the ball in Infinity War but they kept it together and kept working the problem.
Leadership Lesson: There are no perfect people and absolutely no perfect teams. I talk about the corrosive nature of perfectionism here. Remember there are stages to team development (for more check out this article) and some teams return to storming a few times before they get to performing.
I was going to list Infinity War as the Avengers fail, but then I realized that failure is woven throughout the fabric of the Avengers story. Stan Lee wanted to make relatable characters and failure is relatable. In every movie the Avengers are pitted against unimaginable odds and they often fail or their wins are not as complete as they would have planned.
Leadership Lesson: Failure is part of your growth curve, how you anticipate and respond to failure determines how much you grow. Your team members are going to fail and how you handle their failures will define how they grow and how your team performs for you.
There’s a great scene with Natasha (Black Widow) and Captain America after Natasha has just finished up a video call with the team and is clearly exhausted. Not just tired but tired of the entire 5 year ordeal of trying to fix things. She seems to have shouldered that responsibility personally. Somewhere in the conversation Natasha shares that she’s doing this job because it has to be done. Captain America makes a joke and sits with her and asks her if what she’s doing really needs to be done.
Leadership Lesson: Course corrections are part of the leadership journey. Just because you started in one direction doesn’t mean you have to continue in that direction especially if the results aren’t there. There are no awards for most effort in the wrong direction.
One of the best scenes in the movie, I mean the entire theater erupted, was when Captain America was able to control Mjolnir. This was unexpected and just awesome! But what was more impressive was Thor’s response to it. He was almost giddy shouting “I knew you were worthy!”
Leadership Lesson: Celebrate your people’s victories. There has to be room for other members of your team to win and when they do you should be the first one to congratulate them. After all when your team wins you win. Mindset is a great book to get a better handle on this concept. (affiliate link btw)
After Thanos is defeated… again, Thor acknowledges that he isn’t really interested in leading his people. He recognizes that he’s only the leader in title (see point 3) and willingly steps aside for Valkyrie to assume the title of King.
Leadership Lesson: Your ego can lead you astray, especially in leadership roles. Ask yourself if why you are leading, if your answer is more about you than your team, it’s time to reconsider your motivations.
As the movie nears it’s climatic final fight between the Avengers and Thanos and his hordes there is an unexpected moment of pause. Thanos, having decimated Avengers HQ sits down to “wait.” Even the Cap, Thor, and Tony are puzzled as to his lack of activity. But Thanos says that the entire process of them trying to undo his earlier effort allowed him to reconsider his earlier plan and make adjustments.
Leadership Lesson: Take a moment of pause every now and again. Step back from the frenetic pace of work and projects and allow yourself the benefit of a fresh perspective. This may take the form of unplugging, meditation, a walk, or a leisurely drive. I wrote about that more here.
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The Avengers started out as a major league sausage party, a green monster, and Natasha. Over time we saw them involve and include more ethnicities and ladies, heck even a genetically modified raccoon and a tree (He is Groot, btw). By the final battle of Endgame we even have a #girlpower moment I really enjoyed. Where a group of earth’s mightiest heroes were all female, led by Captain Marvel.
Pepper was off the sidelines and in an Iron Woman suit. The entirety of Wakanda made it to the party as well. If this group had been assembled in Infinity War, Thanos might not have succeeded. Debate amongst yourselves. Notice that Thanos’ most trusted advisors were a diverse group as well. And both sides won (at different times) decisively.
Leadership Lesson: It’s a proven fact, diversity makes your team stronger. Different backgrounds lead to different perspectives, which leads to different ideas, which leads to more innovative solutions.
The Avengers had been working to restore things after Thanos’ “snap of destiny” (yeah that’s what I’m going to keep calling) it for the last 5 years. They were mentally and physically exhausted and they were looking a bit frayed around the edges. Enter Ant Man with a Hail Mary.
Leadership Lesson: Be open to all ideas. It’s easy to dismiss some ideas because they haven’t been tried before or the messenger isn’t one of your favorites. But an open mind is necessary to be an effective leader .
After losing his family Clint went rogue. He was killing “bad guys” to restore some sense of justice and fairness to his world. He was cutting a bloody path across continents and even Rhodey was disturbed by the carnage in his wake. Natasha never gave up on him and eventually tracked him down and brought him back to the team.
Leadership Lesson: Don’t give up on your people. I teach and coach that as the leader you have to see the best in your people to bring the best out of them. When your people struggle or aren’t meeting expectations that’s a cue that you need to have a conversation or provide additional resources not a short trip to the door.
From the same scene listed in point 16 Natasha is apparently the point person for what was left of the Avengers. Some on earth, others scattered to the stars. The work is arduous and demanding and has clearly taken its toll. She seems shell shocked and at the end of her rope.
Leadership Lesson: Leadership is chock full of mundane, difficult, less than glamorous moments. Over time it can wear on you. You need to make self-care a priority because if Natasha can burnout so can you. It’s important to relax and recharge.
Captain America has fought Thanos toe-to-toe and he’s still standing but he’s looking a bit shaky. Thanos’ hordes have been unleashed and they are about to systematically overrun the earth. Cap can’t win this. As Captain America stands alone facing the hordes he hears Falcon saying “on your left” and a dozen slingring portals begin to open. Captain America is no longer facing Thanos’ army alone but with an army of his own. Again the theater erupts!
Leadership Lesson: If you coud do it on your own you wouldn’t need a team and therefore wouldn’t need to be a leader. Since you are a leader and (presumably) have a team empower your people to play their part. Because no matter how good you are, you can’t do it all.
From the same scene referenced in point 24 we see Captain America standing against an army that will easily destroy him. But he stands up anyway. He believes he’s all alone and he’s facing all of Thanos’ might but he’s going to go down swinging. The only thing that would have made this scene more satisfying is if Cap had said “I can do this all day.”
Leadership Lesson: During my leadership courses I share that leaders need to provide top cover for their teams. This means that you need to defend and fight for your team. Have their backs and they will have yours – reciprocity.
In one of the early scenes in the movie after Tony is rescued from outer space (100,000 light years from home) by Captain Marvel he let’s Cap have it with both barrels. He’s angry because his plan for Ultron got shelved and that his initial idea for a suit of armor around the world would have protected it. Is it me or didn’t Ultron go spectacularly wrong? Tony’s malnourished, a little out of it, and a lot cranky, so he get’s a pass. During his tirade Cap stands silent and listens. Then Tony pulls the iron man chest piece off and collapses.
Leadership Lesson: When things go wrong you get the blame, when things go right your team gets the credit. That’s leadership. Sometimes they won’t understand, especially when things go wrong. Shake it off and keep moving. Don’t be a doormat but don’t be combative either.
During the final, epic battle, the gauntlet is in the open and as Spider-Man goes down, Captain Marvel steps in to get it to the quantum stabilizer. By way of context, Captain Marvel just flew through Thanos’ battle cruiser, but as she is preparing to take the gauntlet through the quantum stabilizer she is flanked and followed by all of the female Avengers. They offer to help clear her path. No one told them what to do, they just saw what needed to be done and they did it. This was the #girlpower moment I mentioned earlier btw.
Leadership Lesson: Your primary role is to get good people make sure they are clear on their responsibilities and then get out of their way. Empowering your people is pretty much that simple. In the military there is the concept of commander’s intent. Once everyone knows the the desired outcome they are freed up to do what it takes to achieve the mission. Free your people up.
When we are introduced to Tony Stark in Iron Man 1 and Avengers 1 we meet a classic narcissist. Tony had bushel baskets of issues. He described himself as someone who doesn’t play well with others, “a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” The Tony Stark we meet in Endgame is a mature family man, settled, content, a team player.
Leadership Lesson: You should be a better person than you were 10 years ago. No, I’ll wait while you think about it. Leadership development is as much about your character as it is about techniques, methodologies, and motivation.
The Avengers are executing their “Time Heist” and have traveled back in time. Somehow past (bad) Nebula and present (good) Nebula’s computers connect and she unwittingly Facetime’s Thanos. This alerts him to what’s happening in his time. He realizes that he must have succeeded in his plan and the Avengers have come back in time to undo the snap of destiny.
Leadership Lesson: Like point 21 leaders need to keep open minds. You should also be on the look out for industry and market trends that might impact your team or organization . That way you will be prepared to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
At the very end of the movie we see Captain America sitting on a bench, having stayed longer than anticipated in the past. He returns an old man. He talks briefly about the life he led with his second chance and then Falcon asks about his shield. Cap brings it out of a case and asks him to try it on. Falcon says it feels like it’s someone else’s. Cap then gives his shield it to Falcon and in so doing passes the baton.
Leadership Lesson: Part of your role as a leader is to prepare other leaders. Some of the strongest, most resilient organizations have bench strength. If you left today did you make the bench stronger or weaker?
Throughout the movies the roles were clear. The characters grew in the powers, had tremendous character arcs, but they always knew what they did best. Thor never tried to override Tony. Banner never picked up a bow and arrow. Everyone understood that Captain America was the leader and no one really challenged that.
Leadership Lesson: I’ve written about setting clear expectations here, but this goes beyond expectations to roles. Ensure that the members of your team know their roles so that they can work well together.
We knew they were tight but when they arrived at Vormir it became apparent that Natasha and Clint had a very deep friendship. It was their relationship that kept Natasha looking for Clint and that found him in Japan. They cared so deeply for each other that the life of either of them would be an acceptable exchange for the soul stone.
Leadership Lesson: Your team members don’t have to mean as much to you as Natasha and Clint meant to each other but your relationship with them is very important. Gone are the days when you could get by with “as long as they respect me, I don’t care if they like me.” Today’s workforce demands leaders they can like and respect.
In one of the movie’s final scenes, after Thanos has been defeated, Thor and Start Lord are standing in front of a starmap. Star Lord is trying to figure out what their next move will be. As Star Lord makes a choice, Thor overrides it. They go back and forth a few times until Star Lord says “and we all know the captain is right?”And Thor nods and winks which forces Star Lord to say “it’s me.”
Leadership Lesson: Power struggles are part of the team development cycle. If you ever have to say you are the leader it’s probable (read more than likely) that you have lost your credibility or you were never actually the leader. This will prove to be a problem for you. Lead every day so that your team never has reason to question who’s in charge.
Of course I couldn’t leave this out… but you almost thought I did, didn’t you? The climax of the final battle is a struggle between Thanos and Iron Man. Thanos has the gauntlet and is about to snap his fingers and break down the universe at an atomic level. Then Iron Man lunges for the gauntlet and tussles with Thanos for a second or two before being brushed aside. When Thanos snaps his fingers… nuthin.
In that brief tussle Iron Man removed all of the stones and attached them to his Iron Man suit. And to Thanos’ declaration of “I am inevitable”, Tony responds, “I am Iron Man” and snaps his fingers removing Thanos and his army from the universe. A single act of bravery that costs Tony his life and answers Caps accusation in Avengers 1 that Tony wasn’t the kind of guy who would make the big sacrifice for his team.
Leadership Lesson: In your leadership role you exist to ensure the team has what they need to function – direction, resources, authorization, etc. Leadership is difficult, demanding work that will stretch and grow you. And sometimes you will have to sacrifice so that your team can succeed.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the incredible series finale and what leadership lessons you learned. And btw all characters referenced above from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are owned by Marvel Studios, Inc.