On Leadership, Batman and Alfred the Butler

Ben Affleck as Batman

Lately, there seems to be no-end of supply of super hero movies from Hollywood – Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Spiderman, and Superman. Among all these super-heroes, one of them seems to be the all-time favorite to the movie-goers, with remakes almost every couple of years.

Yes, it is indeed “Batman.” Otherwise known as Bruce Wayne or the Dark Knight.

Next-Gen Superhero

Although the series has been popular, the recent casting of Ben Affleck as the new Batman has raised much backlash from many fans in the social networks. For me, I like Affleck as an actor and director. But somehow I still can’t fathom him to be the next Batman.

As a super-hero’s fan like many others, I love Batman. He is so complex, so human, and so believable. Yet he struggled with his haunting past, his ego, and other’s (and self’s) unrealistic expectations.

As a leadership researcher, I asked myself this:

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to use a leadership lens to study Bruce Wayne/Batman and his leadership characteristics?

The Leader or Follower?

Yet during my examination of the trilogy of the movies “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” I was attracted by the strong leadership attributes of yet another character.

No it is not the scary Joker, not the tragic Harvey Dent , but Alfred the Butler.

Since the beginning of the series, Alfred Pennyworth not only has more airtime than many other characters in all 3 series, but the butler was indeed portrayed by J. Nolan as the leadership anchor in the Dark Knight series.

Let’s look at how Alfred demonstrated some of these together.

Demonstrating Servant Leadership

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in classic essay The Servant as Leader published in 1970.

In that essay, Greenleaf said this:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.

That person is sharply different from one who is leader first; perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.

The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

Before the shooting of “Batman Begins,” Nolan, the director, visited the Oscar-winning Michael Caine in the UK. Caine didn’t know at first what role Nolan was pitching before the meeting. When Nolan told him that he wanted Caine to play the butler, his first reaction was that he would probably be spending the entire series saying things like “Dinner is served” and “Would you like a coffee?’

Caine almost turned down the role, but after reading  Nolan’s script, the Oscar winner agreed to pick up this important role as he realized he is not only playing a servant, but the servant-leader role throughout the movie series.

Positional Importance

alfred.jpg (640×480)Alfred, as portrayed by Caine, had been providing instrumental, other-first services to Bruce Wayne to make him successful since the day he became orphan, and throughout the journey while he transformed into the heroic leader to save Gotham city.

While his services as butler still include serving food and coffee, Alfred saved Batman’s life for many times. Remember, it’s Alfred who rescued Batman from being poisoned by Scarecrow in “Batman Begins.”

In the Dark Knight, Alfred picked up a smoldering Batman from the narrows, and cracked a henchmen upside the head with a golf club.

Acting as the Mentor/Father

As most of you know from the movie and/or from the comic. Alfred was the foster-father of young Bruce Wayne, whose parents got killed, and started to bring him up.

Instead of instructing Bruce as a teacher, he acted as a mentor.

  • A mentor is different from a teacher.
  • The latter teaches, while the former inspires by sharing authentic stories and experience.
  • Alfred is a master storyteller to impart wisdom.

Here is a wonderful story in the Dark knight told by Alfred when Bruce was confronting his nemesis, the joker, and Bruce was clueless about Joker’s motive to destroy Gotham.

Leadership Story Time

Alfred Pennyworth

A long time ago, I was in Burma, my friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anyone who traded with him. One day I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.

Bruce Wayne

So why steal them?

Alfred Pennyworth

Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

More than serving merely as a faithful servant, his service of food and coffee takes a back seat to his role as Bruce’s surrogate dad, mentor, and emotional backbone throughout his life. His mentorship and fatherhood helped the orphan Bruce to genuinely transform as a real heroic leader that Gotham needs.

Be the True-North Compass to Others

Throughout the series, Alfred has acted as the moral compass to Bruce in his darkest hours to guide him through. The following scene perhaps captures the essence of Alfred’s compass to Bruce.

Bruce Wayne:

People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?

Alfred Pennyworth:

Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.

Bruce Wayne:

Well today I found out what Batman can’t do. He can’t endure this. Today you get to say “I told you so.”

Alfred Pennyworth

Today, I don’t want to. [pauses for several moments]

Alfred Pennyworth:

But I did bloody tell you.

One More Scene

There was yet one more memorable scene worth mentioned:

After a long night of fighting the bad guys, Bruce Wayne was stitching himself up from the dog bite. Alfred very wisely offered his concerns, and softly yet assertively warned Bruce to ‘know his own limits.’

Alfred also spared Bruce the heartbreak of discovering that Rachel Dawes is engaged to Harvey Dent by burning her letter to him in “The Dark Knight” (2008). All this important wisdom offer much needed guidance to point the lost bat to fly to the right direction.

In a speech to Bruce at the beginning of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred told Bruce that he dreamed of one day he has always longed for: He’ll sit down in his favorite cafe in Florence, order a drink, and spot Bruce there living a happy, anonymous life free of Batman.  Alfred’s vision and his compass eventually guided Bruce to authentically live his life at the end of the movie.

Alfred reminded Bruce the Batman that he is a mere mortal after all. With Alfred’s help, Bruce Wayne was able to be transformed from being a self-righteous martyr and into a true and real hero. It is fair to say that Batman is not Batman without Alfred.

I have just heard that the new League of Justice movie will also have the role of Alfred in it. And Caine has agreed to act as Alfred again! I am eager to see how Alfred, not Batman nor Superman, can be exercise his servant leadership beyond the Batman series to save the world!


Never miss an issue of Linked 2 Leadership, subscribe today here.
Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Andrew Ma

Andrew Ma is Founder of Chorev Consulting Int’l Ltd
He serves in Leadership Consulting, Training and Coaching for Leading Corporations
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web 

Image Sources: moviesofhollywood.com, blog.americansoda.co.uk

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Don Bogutski on June 1, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Insightful, inspiring of analysis for application to self actualization. Earlier in my life and career this piece would not have had as much meaning. Thanks for presenting at the right time.

  2. gayle on June 2, 2014 at 9:54 am

    Thank You for a good vantage point. I had always looked at Alfred as a groomer. Much like the Royals have people who groom future Royalty on protocol, and conduct. Many a millitary have protocol officers. I had grown up looking at BatMan kinda that way. A blue-blood in need of millitary tactics, yet all the while carrying it off with grace and the good favor of the people. In no way do I mean we are people pleasers, but good conduct, character and integrity, such as the wise counsel of Alfred will cause us to live at peace, and sometimes even the enemy- is subdued by that overwhelming power of goodness.

  3. Jeff on June 5, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Great post Andrew. I love “not so real-life” examples of servant leadership in action. It makes it real for our readers and those looking to put it into action themselves. The fact that Alfred is actually a servant makes it that much cooler. Keep up the great work.