Leadership Hacks from Erwin Smith (Attack on Titans)

It was somewhere around 2014 when a young, impressionable, lost and confused me, found an article on Forbes that will shape the way I will view motion pictures since.

I always knew that movies were communicating something, but never had I imagined so much wisdom drawn out from such references like Star Trek, Batman and Star Wars. It was so unique , so insightful–that I spent the night reconsidering almost every movie I had seen.

The theme of the articles were primarily about leadership which I appreciated to a certain extent,

I was in organizational development at that time, but it was only in later years that the true meaning of it made so much practical sense. At that time at least at a theoritical and conceptual standpoint I understood the information being shared, but it was not until six long years that the words came to life and with some powerful resonance.

Regardless of what industry you work for or the number of people in your team, the concept of good leadership is universal. Somehow it is intrinsically embedded in our psyche and closely linked to our own internal compass to determine what good leadership looks like and what phony is. The situations, decisions and growing pains any leader will have to hurdle are, and I am making a controversial claim here, equally important, challenging and life-defining.

So, you may not be fighting Titans in a fictional world like Erwin Smith is, but we can all certainly draw lessons from his leadership. For this piece, I had gleaned three leadership lessons we can all learn from Erwin Smith, Commander of The Survey Corps.

Erwin Smith, encouraging his Survey Corps through the gesture of giving hearts for the cause

While not all of us had the chance to be tutored by commendable leaders, I have been lucky to be in the care of some for most of my career. Looking back, I did not necessarily have the means to eloquently explain why I felt so, until recently. Not more than five years ago, I started having a team in my care and truthfully, you will always think you had it in the bag until it starts swallowing you from the ground up. I will not be ashamed to state that you will have moments of confidence, then doubts and ultimately confusion. You were of course, good at what you do, but how do you influence other people. How did you get influenced by those who led your team?

The question seemed so easy, but not everything that is based on human perception is black and white and can be easily explained. The accessibility of leadership videos, books and schools of thought, organizations and institutions will feed you that it is unthinkable for young leaders to not hit the ground running. Leadership, however, at least for me, was not something that can be learned through study, training or formal education alone and I never hit the ground running, not closely nor without pains. It is an acquired taste, fermented by experience and seasoned with time. A daunting task, of which, you have all the resources, but so few certainties.

If there is any great example of leadership we can all learn from, perhaps it can be from Erwin. With all certainty, leading people to fight against gigantic human-eating monsters is no easy task. How did Erwin do it?

Lesson 1: Leaders Lead

In Season 3, Part 2, Episode 54, titled “Hero”, Erwin leads a suicidal attack against one of the nine Titans. As leaders, we may not necessarily need to lead a head on attack that leads to certain death, but we have every opportunity to lead those in our care towards success. Those in our care expect us to bite the dust first, take the first hit, should anything go wrong and lead on. Of course, those words are quite morbid still, but what is implied is that in all levels of leadership, small or large following–leaders have the responsibility, privilege and obligation to not just go first, but take the lead. If we had instances where we had to throw people, other departments or the system under the bus, we can learn so much from how Erwin has focused all his energies around making his corps succeed amidst similar if not more complicated and corrupt inner workings.

Lesson 2: Leaders Inspire

In the corporate world of today, the competency of leadership had been measured by performance. Had Erwin been an employee of today, he would have been fired a long time ago. The series indicates that the Survey Corps has never been the choice of graduating cadets due to its high attrition, high effort and low success rate. In fact, they were so unpopular that they could barely remember having the people send them off for a long time. Before the discover of Eren’s powers, the corps had nothing, but failures on the record.

Still, you will find really powerful and smart individuals, like Levi and Hanji stick with Erwin. Translate that to employees of today who move out upon sensing that the team they are part of is not popular or difficult and they will start moving out, transferring to another team or worse resign. So how then, does Erwin retain top talent, those who we can certainly consider as the best in the realm? Inspiration.

Erwin, like all great leaders is grounded on a core belief, that even the most dire of consequences and ends cannot shake. He builds his action plans around that core belief and moves around it when necessary. That alone is inspiring. We all want to believe in something, but many of us doubt that belief and eventually just go with the bandwagon. Seeing someone firmly believe in something even unto death is remarkably charismatic.

Lesson 3: Leaders Define Success

Talking about the corps failures and Erwin totally not passing his probation in the real world makes us curious how he still holds much influence even to successfully convince people to his side on a coup de’t tat. In today’s jobs, requesting for more funds, resources or support from the organisations becomes a little steep if you had too little success to show and all the more to get the sentiment and support of other departments.

So how then did Erwin still have the ears of the other Commanders? While all the others thought of practical applications to their force, he anchored the success of the corps to an ideology. While many will argue this to be detrimental to business, which can actually bet true, the Survey Corps did not have really much of a choice. They were tasked to do what no one had done and that by definition kind of categorizes that task between improbable leaning more on impossible.

Erwin knew that the conventional meaning of success would only drag the sentiment of people and the morale of his soliders, so he had to define success differently. Every person inside the walls knew that it was nearly, if not totally impossible for humanity to venture out the walls, but he knew everyone dreamt of being out. That intrinsic human quality to hope was all that Erwin needed to continually rekindle to make his corps relevant and keep the confidence of his people and his influence amongst the higher-ups.

You may lose your job if you do so today, but then again, young leaders of today are not tasked to survey fields at the risk of being eaten. We all sit comfortably at our stations with proper ventilation and fast computers, so there really is no excuse to settle down the basic goals of our key performance indicators and tie up success to an ideal state where one does not need to be afraid with perfection, because none had achieved it yet.

Leaders have a huge responsibility. Your decisions and better judgment do not just impact the team, organisation and business. It also directly affects the lives of the people in your care, which ultimately sums up to an obligation to humanity and its betterment, especially in the years to come post COVID-19.