Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of the best shows on television — ever. I’ve been a fan from the beginning when Phil Coulson and Grant Ward showed up in sunglasses outside Skye’s beat up van in Los Angeles. Since being raised from the dead at great lengths, Coulson has led a small band of dedicated individuals to keep the world safe, to serve as a shield between earth’s people and threats they couldn’t ever imagine.
Now that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is in its fifth (and possibly final) season, I’ve been reflecting more and more on the enduring qualities that the show will leave behind. One of those enduring qualities is the leadership skills and style of Phil Coulson (played brilliantly by Clark Gregg). At first, Coulson didn’t strike me as a leader leader. After all, he turned up first in Iron Man as the earnest but annoying, “Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, employee of the far more leaderly Director Nick Fury. And then he was killed off in The Avengers.
But ever since he got back from Tahiti, that “magical place,” I’ve taken note of some traits in Phil Coulson that all leaders should emulate.
Lead with humility.
Phil Coulson is never bossy. He never pulls rank. He never answers the inevitable “Why?” question with “Because I’m the Director and I say so.” When there’s a mission to be carried out, he’s not above going into danger with his team, and he often gets his hands dirty. A humble leader inspires respect and sets a positive example that no one team member is greater than the team put together.
Lead by letting others shine.
Phil Coulson is great at delegating. When others have a skill set that’s better suited for the task at hand, Coulson has no problem letting that person take the lead. Often, Coulson lets Agent May take the lead in a hand-to-hand fight simply because she’s the better fighter. And he never gets in the way of Jemma and Fitz, letting them do what they do best. A good leader doesn’t hog the spotlight; he knows he’s being successful if each member of his team is the best they can be at their jobs.
Lead by believing in your team.
One of the most powerful scenes in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. occurs in “Providence” (Season 1, Episode 18). The U.S. government has turned on S.H.I.E.L.D. after most of its agents turned out to be Hydra sleepers. With the few remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists on the run, Coulson leads his team into a frozen wilderness following coordinates from Nick Fury. With the Bus out of fuel and nothing in sight, Team Coulson is pretty much stranded with no way out of their predicament. Even the true believers like May and Fitz are telling Coulson they’re on a fool’s errand.
But Coulson stands firm in his belief in his team’s mission.
“This has to mean something. The world needs us! HYDRA is out there. We cannot let them win! We cannot let them define us! Do you understand that? We are not agents of nothing, we are agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that still carries weight! After everything we’ve been through, that carries weight!”
I know it’s all fictional, but I feel inspired just reading those words — the same way I felt hearing them for the first time. When everyone else feels like giving up, a great leader inspires his team to carry on.
Lead by being firm when necessary.
Sometimes, it is necessary for a leader to bring the full weight of his leadership to bear, especially when one person’s actions could jeopardize the whole team. In “Aftershocks” (Season 2, Episode 11), Mack is upset and freaking out over the death of Agent Antoine Triplett and the underground earthquake that marked the beginning of the Terrigen/Inhuman crisis. He’s either on the verge of quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. or causing a mutiny. But Coulson has some tough talk for him that gets him to straighten up in the midst of volatile and dangerous circumstances.
“That’s enough! If Trip was here. He wouldn’t be arguing, he wouldn’t be bitching. He would be gearing up to do what needs to be done. Yes, we’re dealing with forces we don’t understand, but Hydra I do understand. I want everyone ready when the sun comes up — end of discussion.”
Lead by having fun.
Most of the time, S.H.I.E.L.D. is trying to save the world from disaster, but that doesn’t stop Director Coulson from enjoying his job. His excitement over Trip’s old school gadgetry, his love for Lola, his eagerness to see Ghost Rider in the flesh — all of it reveals a man who has fun doing what he does. Which is important. If the team leader doesn’t like his job, why should the team members like theirs?
Lead by truly caring for each member of your team.
Phil Coulson sees his team members as people — not as tools he can use to reach a goal. From May to Mack, from Deathlok to Yo-Yo, Coulson has taken the time out to personally counsel each of his core team members on issues they were facing individually. He’s offered hugs when needed, he’s been a shoulder to cry on, and he spares no expense to save one of his own.
But no relationship showcases how much Coulson cares for his team members more than his relationship with Daisy Johnson (“Quake,” formerly known as Skye). From the angsty, cynical, distrusting girl we met in the very first episode to the decisive, passionate, and confident leader she is today, Director Phil Coulson has been there — sometimes tender, sometimes firm — encouraging, training, advising, every step of the way.
We don’t know what’s next for Phil Coulson. With his body giving out on him, it’s likely he’ll die for good very soon. But the impact he’s made on the people he led will never be forgotten — and Daisy Johnson will be his greatest accomplishment.
In the end, great leadership is about loving people, loving your work, and never giving up.
Director Phil Coulson, whatever the future holds for you, you will go down in history as one of the greatest examples of leadership of all time.