John Quesada on Enhancing Your Situational Awareness

Comic books

Early in a leader’s career, there is often an attempt to emulate the leaders they admire. This is beneficial when using their example as a jumping off point to find your own style; however, it becomes an issue when your “go-to” move is to mimic someone else’s response or reaction. John Quesada has dealt with this first-hand.

John Quesada is the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel Entertainment. He oversees both the comic book and movie franchises to ensure their continued quality and synergy. In doing so, he works with the writers to develop new stories. The problem he faces is in their overreliance on the past to create the future. As he discussed with Kevin Smith on the podcast Fatman on Batman,

JQ: Creators would reference old comic books and say, ‘I want to write something just like that.’… We had to get our creators to starting looking out the window and less at the comics. Cause it’s too easy, right?

KS: All you want to do is what you’ve seen before. I didn’t go into comics saying, ‘I want to show them something new.’ I just wanted to show them my version of something I’ve always loved that I read when I was a kid.

JQ: And that’s fine. It’s fine to do that, to get to play with these toys you love. We all fall into the traps. Bill Jemas [Marvel’s President of Publishing] had a great quote. We use to call it getting tangled up in your own superhero underwear. Every once in a while you have to slap yourself and say, ‘wait, step back. I have to write this for everyone, not just for me.’

For leaders, feeling tangled up in your own superhero underwear can often be the result of a lack of situational awareness. Situational awareness refers to your ability to identify, integrate, and comprehend information from multiple sources so as to form a clear understanding of your environment. Put simply, its paying attention to what is going on around you.

Situational awareness is how you recognize potentially dangerous situations, increase intelligence, and learn from mistakes. Without it, you are like Quesada’s writers whose creativity is stifled by only utilizing the source material. Their nostalgia and comfort with past practices pushes them to resist being attentive to their surroundings, thus missing out on innovative ideas.

Here are a few ways you can develop your situational awareness and remain open to your environment:

Identify Your Surroundings. The first step in situational awareness is to become aware of your environment. Take a break from researching past practices so you can perceive the conditions, behaviors, and elements that are happening around you right now.

Avoid Complacency. You can’t be more aware if you are consumed with preserving the status quo. Continue to challenge yourself and those around you. Don’t accept the excuse that “we’ve always done it that way” and push yourself when you feel yourself getting too comfortable.

Limit Situational Overload. When we feel overwhelmed, a common response is to retreat into a place of security. Typically, this is when our superhero underwear strangles us. It causes distraction, increased errors, and high stress. Focus on the objective and prioritize tasks.

Fight Normalcy Bias. Without situational awareness, normalcy bias causes us to underestimate both the possibility of a negative outcome and its possible effects. Consider the possibility that every disturbance is a potential threat. You may feel a bit paranoid while learning this skill, but with practice you’ll more effectively begin to make assessments based on actual risk.

As nice as it may seem to go back to a simpler time, this is not an option so stop trying to recreate it. Embrace the realities of your workplace with a concerted effort to maintain situational awareness. As Quesada tells his writers, “look out the window. You may see a new idea.”

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