What We Can Learn from Batman’s Manservant

Connecting “progress” and “cruelty” in workplaces, communities, and relationships…

In the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises Bruce Wayne has not been able to progress in living, bound as he is to the past in which he believes his girlfriend Rachel was going to marry him. That is, she would have married him if the Joker had not murdered her. Instead of moving on, Bruce is on a path of self-destruction as the Batman.

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His manservant Alfred watches and worries about having to bury another member of the Wayne family if Bruce keeps on his current path.  So to help Bruce make progress he uses what some might call cruelty.  He tells Bruce that before she died Rachel gave him a letter saying she had made a choice of another man over Bruce, and to spare him pain Alfred had burned the letter.

Alfred had kept the truth from Bruce out of love, but in the end he needed to be “cruel” and tell the truth. The cruel telling of the truth caused a rift between these close friends and Batman carried on with his dangerous mission, but in the end he did move on and settle down with a new love. And Alfred was able to know this.

Just  a few days after pondering this movie scenario that came to mind when I connected progress and cruelty, I attended a technology leadership conference.  At the final session of the conference I listened to a well-known speaker and author, Tom DeMarco, give a talk on ethics.  After a sprawling and mesmerizing overview of the history of Western philosophical thought on the topic of ethics, DeMarco concluded with the thoughts of the 20th century Scottish moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre.

I’m going to paraphrase and outline MacIntyre’s view from his work Beyond Virtue in the simplest terms a la DeMarco, and then I’ll come back around to the connection of cruelty and progress, the subject of this blog.

  1. People in communities or organizations engage in complex, cooperative activities or practices.
  2. They experience benefits from trying to excel at those practices.
  3. As they strive for excellence the activity or practice is extended to something new, more advanced, more beneficial than ever before.
  4.  As social beings we need 3 character traits to advance the practice in this way:
    1. Truth-telling
    2. Courage
    3. Justice

In the workplace hiring managers tend to look for people who are “smart and get things done”.  This guy is a manager’s dream! But to extend the practice to some new level of excellence or to some advanced state of benefit for the company, the manager needs to hire the person who is truthful, courageous, and just – the manager’s pain in the neck.

Alfred did not want to tell the truth, but in the end the only way he could bring about progress, the only way he could “advance the practice”, so to speak, was to be truthful, courageous, and just.

In our communities and our workplaces sometimes our conscience cannot be a team player.  Sometimes in our communities and workplaces we need to courageously and justly tell the truth even if it hurts someone’s feelings, even if it means that someone rejects us, even if we are judged disloyal or insubordinate.

The alternative is a community, a workplace, a practice, a life that is stuck. And that is the more cruel.

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Next time I’ll be connecting the novel Of Human Bondage and the word “value”.

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