Dr. Peter Harms brings a new perspective to business and leadership.
Written by Carolanne Roberts
Photography by Zach Riggins
It all started with the box, that cardboard font of statistics and insight housing the Transformers toys of the ’80s. Dr. Peter Harms, admittedly a studious child, dove for the data about Optimus Prime (good guy), Megatron (bad guy), and all the rest, not realizing that years later he’d link the characters—and their fans—to leadership theories.
Now a PhD and assistant professor of management at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce, Harms says, “Those boxes had these little charts on them, and you had to use a special red cellophane tape to read it, like a secret message. The charts gave stats for each character—how smart this one is, how strong that one is, and so forth. It became really important to me to know who was fastest or best at some skill.
“Years later, I began to think about the message the people who created the cartoon were conveying,” he says. “On the surface, it seemed like stupid robots shooting each other, but there were lessons being taught, even if they weren’t intentionally written in.”
With coauthor Seth Spain (Binghamton University), Harms looked outside the boxes and into the TV Transformers cartoon of the 1980s for a chapter in a soon-to-be published book titled Monographs in Leadership and Management: Leadership Issues from Compelling Contexts.
Here’s the gist: “At the end of the day, was the message of compassion for your fellow man, for the earth and the environment, and virtues you can embrace?” Harms says. “I think the people who made the show were just interested in good storytelling and didn’t think of themselves as communicating societal values, but that’s what they did. I felt it would be cool to write about how our imaginations shape and are shaped by our values. Then we’d analyze the imagined world to see if it parallels the real world.”
So if you’re successful in the business world and were hooked on Transformers back in their heyday, this is all about you. “We don’t know how many kids grew up saying, ‘I wish I were Megatron,’” continues Harms, humor intact. “I think the fact that you see theTransformers movies coming out right now and making billions tells me that whatever was going on resonated to the extent that people in their mid-30s want to go back and relive them.” Strangely, Harms doesn’t count himself among those impacted by the craze. He reports that Spain represents the other end of the scale. “He was a Transformers junkie. It was a huge part of his life to the point that he cried [as an adult] when Optimus Prime dies in the movie,” Harms says.
The balance of these two academics makes for a good read. The chapter consciously addresses the intended irony of pitting cartoons against careers. On a serious note, the two conclude their findings with a question that has an answer yet to be found. “A lot of the kids who watched Transformers are now up-and-coming executives, we know,” he says. “What values did television teach them as children?Transformers basically got kicked off TV because it wasn’t educational. What was that show telling kids? What was the message?”
Harms analyzes human behavior everywhere. Gazing around his child’s daycare class, he began speculating how leadership manifests itself as early as a year to 18 months. Attracted to work place issues, he recently submitted a paper on brain parasites and how they influence management practices around the world. In the nature vs. nurture space, the professor speculates, “What if there were something in your environment that influenced your biology?” And then there’s his work in the “dark side,” as he calls it, which examines a triad of workplace entities including the Machiavellian, narcissistic, and psychopathic traits.
Harms, who began his teaching in the Fall 2015 semester, also maintains a research relationship with the U.S. military (with the University’s blessing). A recent study focuses on courage in officers and soldiers. “What does courage mean?” he challenges. “It’s much more than standing in the face of gunfire. It’s believing in something and standing up for it. Our Army wants leaders, not Rambo.”
There’s yet another research challenge that lies on the good professor’s plate. “Alabama is an entirely new world to us,” he says, speaking of his wife, a special education teacher, and their children, ages 7 and 2, who moved to Tuscaloosa from the University of Nebraska. “We’re in the exploration stage. It’s just wonderful to be here.”