How Spider-Man Poisoned Its Own Prospects

In a collection of management cases by Peter Drucker, published posthumously in 2008, a number of well-known names are used to underscore certain key points: Intel (INTC) co-founder Andy Grove on becoming an effective executive, President Lyndon Johnson on making a tough decision, and economist Joseph Schumpeter on leaving a meaningful mark in the world. Then there was Spider-Man.

"Whatever life holds for me, I will never forget these words: 'With great power comes great responsibility,'" Peter Parker, the superhero's alter-ego, is quoted as saying in Drucker's book at the start of one case study that examines a corporation's obligation to contribute to the common good.

This week, though, Drucker surely would have extracted another lesson from Spider-Man—or, more accurately, from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the Broadway musical that has become an absolute debacle. The show has been plagued for months by production delays, an out-of-control budget, workplace safety violations, and harsh reviews. And in the face of these troubles, producers have forced the director, Julie Taymor, out of her job.

Falling From the Sky

Taymor had earned a stellar reputation for her earlier work on the runaway hit The Lion King, adding to the intrigue surrounding Spider-Man as it has turned into a total flop. "How Ms. Taymor went from artistic genius … to a girl falling from the sky (to paraphrase a song in the show) is not only the stuff of Greek drama but also sure to become theatrical legend," Patrick Healy wrote in the The New York Times.

It should also become the stuff of management scholarship. The big takeaway: Past performance doesn't necessarily guarantee future accomplishment, especially in a new job. "There is no reliable way to test or predict whether a person successful in one area can make a successful transition to a different environment," Drucker wrote. "This can be learned only by experience."

To the uninitiated, including me, Taymor seemed to be doing what she had always done: directing a play. Those with a keen appreciation for the stage, however, suggest an enormous difference exists between The Lion King, where Taymor took a film that was already a box-office smash and adapted it for the theater, and an original production like Spider-Man. In fact, Spider-Man marks the first time Taymor has written a Broadway "book" (the libretto, or text, that holds a musical together). Her co-writer, Glen Berger, also lacked the background for a project of this scope.

Faced With a New Job

For many businesspeople, it is far from obvious that a new challenge demands a new approach. (Taymor apparently compounded this problem with arrogance, insisting she knew best and ignoring the input of her colleagues.) Drucker recalled that he himself had never concentrated on what a new task entails until early on in his career, when he went from securities analyst to top aide at a private bank in London. One day, the senior partner of the bank called Drucker in. "I understand you did very good securities analysis," the boss told him. "But if we had wanted you to do securities analysis work, we would have left you where you were. You are now the executive secretary to the partners, yet you continue to do securities analysis. What should you be doing now, to be effective in your new job?"

Drucker said that initially he "was furious" with the dressing down, but eventually he realized that the senior partner was right. Many people stumble when they move up the ladder because they "do what I did … in that London bank," Drucker explained. "They continue in their new assignment what made them successful in the old assignment and what earned them the promotion. Then they turn incompetent, not because they have been incompetent, but because they are doing the wrong things."

When a new job really goes bad for someone, Drucker advised, the organization should slide the person into his or her previous slot or into a role akin to the old one. At first, they're bound to be bitter. But pretty quickly, Drucker wrote, they tend to say, "Thank God I am back in a job I can do and do well." (For Taymor, this wasn't practical; it's not as though she could become assistant stage manager.)

For particularly risky jobs, Drucker said, it's even wise to build in an exit plan right from the start—"that is, the option to step back into the old job should the new one not work out."

Good at Launching, Not at Managing

Entrepreneurs, of course, must deal with this issue as their ventures mature and grow. Invariably, their job changes from creator to manager—and not everyone is suited for the switch. Drucker noted, for instance, that after helping to start Polaroid, Edwin Land "decided that he was not the right man for the top management job in the company" and left it to others to run the day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, he returned to the place where he could have the largest impact: the laboratory. Ray Kroc did a similar thing at McDonald's (MCD), letting go of the corporate reins so he could spend all his time where he excelled: visiting restaurants and interacting with customers.

Still, Drucker pointed out, many others haven't enjoyed "such happy endings."

In many ways, you have to admire Julie Taymor for her ambition and artistry. But even the most supremely talented individuals must realize that any new job has the potential to bite them.

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