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Natural-Born Leader: Noun. An untalented, benignly useless person, but for the potent services of the natural-born led.
—Thorax, Nine Chickweed Lane
"That's Leonardo -- the boring moral center of the group, the generic good guy, the default leader character that nobody wanted to pick when it came time to declare which turtle you wanted to be--..."
Conflict drives stories. This is a central axiom of fiction. It's why the more conflicted and nuanced a character, relationship, or plot, the more involved the viewer will become. Characters themselves must have some conflict to overcome, be it internal or external, to engage a narrative. This is why when a story focuses on a group of heroes, it is the most dynamic of them that garner the most attention and love. Pity that's rarely The Leader.
Leaders in fiction tend to have two simultaneous burdens on them both in and out of the story: outside of the story they must be The Everyman as a reader's stand-in; they can't be too distinctive without alienating some audience members after all. So they end up sucking because we suck. Inside the story they have to bear the qualities necessary to lead. So their temperament must be emotionally balanced, serious and morally upright to keep their teammates in check. Effectively, they don't have the ambiguity of the other heroes. You know that he's not going to fall to The Dark Side or lose, so his conflicts are less interesting than those not as protected by their morals or Plot Armor. Put together you end up with a Flat Character that can't quite keep the audience engaged.
Those being led are under no such yoke. They're free to be a Rebellious Spirit with a Dark and Troubled Past, a carefree Cloudcuckoolander or any kind of character under the sun. Proof of concept: part of being The Lancer is an increased likelihood of making Ensemble Darkhorse. The Hero has no choice in the matter; if he wants his party to function he has to put on The Freddy ascot.
In a long-running series or mythos, the Standardized Leader stands out most for not being able to change. And when we say change, we don't even mean his Character Development. Writers and designers may not even be able to change the Hero's look without backlash from fans who can only accept the original flavor. The Standardized Leader is trapped in time.
Averting this trope is not impossible. In fact, some characters are Magnetic Heroes precisely because they're quirky and Hot-Blooded. Heck, some writers will see that second paragraph and think that any character capable of balancing that many variables would make for an Oscar role, making Mr. Ensemble Donut a delicious jelly-filled donut thanks to Hidden Depths. He just happens to be a Nice Guy on top of it.
Anime & Manga
- The nominal leader (the one wearing the goggles) in any Digimon series, especially Tai. They're usually the most courageous and have the least issues, though the later ones verge more on Idiot Hero.
- Highschool of the Dead plays with this trope in regards to the main character Takashi. He worries that he’s got no real outstanding skills compared to the rest of the (useful) members of his team, yet given the flaky cohesion and variable sanity of the group, his ability to keep everyone on a leash is quite invaluable. The kicker is that while he may be the most centred of the group, he'’s not completely stable either and he knows it.
- Shikamaru in Naruto seems to suffer a little from this after becoming the leader for a short while. When in his function as squad leader he makes an effort not to appear his usual lazy self, his position as The Smart Guy is filled by Neji and he continued his streak of being the only member of the cast to not receive a major injury. After the timeskip he seems to have reverted back to his normal self but he still has a lot more boring outfit than anyone else in the Konoha 11, though he receives significant character development during his arc after the timeskip.
- This is probably what crippled Seiya's popularity in Saint Seiya. Shiryu and Hyoga both get some focus at times and Ikki and Shun are practically Raoh and Toki as kids. Seiya gets the least amount of focus in terms of backgrounds, and even his quest to find his sister takes the back seat and is all but ignored for
nearly fourteen manga volumesthe entire manga, being only solved at the end on a borderline Ass Pull.
- Lampshaded in Sket Dance, where even though it's acknowledged that the Sket-dan wouldn't be able to exist without Bossun's leadership, he's considered really boring compared to the other-members in-universe as well as out. (For example, when an artist wants to created a manga based on the Sket-dan, he completely ignores Bossun, and later Bossun is the only one of the three who doesn't win an award in his class.)
- Voltron probably fills this trope most perfectly, as Keith is the standard reasonable and noble leader, while Lance was the hothead, Princess Allura was "the girl," Hunk was the "Gentle Giant," and Pidge was the "kid." He is the voice of reason amongst the varied personalities - he plays the role of the audience or writer that they can better empathize with.
- Cosmic Boy from the Legion of Super-Heroes.
- This is an explicit feature of Cyclops, leader of the X-Men. Joss Whedon described him as "the team washout in terms of popularity." The traits which make him, or anyone, a good leader are also the traits that make him the least fun at parties. To a certain extent, the two are mutually exclusive. Recent writers have given Cyclops a good deal of character development by embracing this trope.
- Used to great effect when he visits the Hellfire Club strip lounge and divides his time between not having fun and being hassled into missions.
- Poor Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame has never been as popular as Han Solo, Boba Fett, Yoda, or even R2D2.
- A major complaint about Captain America in The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Avengers: Infinity War was that he came off as this. The other Avengers were troubled Anti-Heroes, conflicted about their morality and legacy, and Cap was... there. He gave a few Rousing Speeches, had the Honor Before Reason moments typical of his character and some very Badass moments but other than that, he was simply the de facto leader of the Avengers. Compared to the others, he barely had a character arc in the films. Thankfully averted in Avengers: Endgame.
- Jake from Animorphs. While he seems like this to his teammates, his inner conflicts resulting from his position and Shoot the Dog tendencies make him a subversion of this trope. This is especially brought to light when he orders his (Yeerk-infested) brother killed and starts committing war crimes against the Yeerks.
- Though it may be more of a I Did What I Had to Do, as he is fighting a war, and when you operate a small guerrilla unit trying to stop aliens taking over the world, you do what you have to. Also the fact that in a war, the goal is not to fight your enemy, but to kill them.
- Bridei of Juliet Marillier's Bridei Chronicles.
- Kill Time or Die Trying: Brad from Part I is a fairly generic student who cements himself as the moral compass of WARP and eventually becomes club president.
- Rhodan, the eponymous character of the long running Perry Rhodan pulp space opera. Much was made of his leadership and decisiveness in the early years, but that eventually got old and now he's basically the reader's projection screen.
- Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Despite being the title character, a clean-cut all-American boy and The Smart Guy, his negligible personality is overwhelmed by those of his much more colorful and assertive teammates.
- Rand, the hero of The Wheel of Time, is pretty bland. His two best friends have far more unique personalities.
- Rand is arguably a deconstruction of both this and The Chosen One, since for much of the later part of the series, he was literally going insane as a result of all the pressure he was under. He did finally get better, though, and now acts more like a wise beyond his years holy warrior than anything.
- Happens quite a bit in High Fantasy and Science Fantasy series in general. The main hero shoulders the burden of being the standard Campbellian hero, generally a standard white male protagonist who grows from a boy to a man to The Messiah. His companions' role in the plot is not so strictly defined, and are allowed to be quirky, flawed and hint at Hidden Depths.
- The Belgariad
- Simon R. Green's Deathstalker
- Jason and the Argonauts: Apollonius of Rhodes' take was fresh-faced kid Jason with no exploits to his name, is put in charge of this all-star team of established Greek heroes. He can't help but come across as bland in comparison.
- The Lord of the Rings: Neither Frodo nor Aragorn really fits the Standardized Leader type, but both tend to be overshadowed by other members of the Fellowship.
- Prydain Chronicles
Live Action TV
- Firefly averts this trope by showing Captain Mal Reynolds as heavily conflicted with personal demons and prejudices. He is morally gray, (or at least adheres to his own code), has a hotter temper than both his lancer Zoe, and his Big Guy, Jayne (both of whom have fairly hot tempers themselves), and is arguably the most interesting of the main characters on the show.
- Jack of Lost was never without his own issues, but because he had to fulfill the role of Wasteland Elder, he never seemed to face his problems head on and develop like his followers. Eventually, he does manage to subvert the trope, when after finally leaving the island, his personal demons follow him and escalate, and he slowly falls apart. The fandom seems to like him now.
- A number of Red Power Rangers fall into this, most notably Jason in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Scott in Power Rangers RPM, and Jason's Expy Jayden in Power Rangers Samurai.
- Which is in direct contrast to Jayden's Super Sentai counterpart; Takeru Shiba, who is somewhat of a subversion by the fact that he appears to try and keep up the trappings of a Standardized Leader but eventually slips more and more as his backstory is revealed. It becomes one of the centerpoints for the latter parts of Samurai Sentai Shinkenger.
- Star Trek: The Original Series, especially in the early episodes, frequently played up the idea that Kirk (or any Starfleet captain) was obliged to make sure the crew perceived him this way--seeing him as always unflappable and dependable, to ensure order on board ship. According to the writer's bible, the reason Kirk plays so hard and gets into so many romantic entanglements when he's off the ship is to relieve the stress of maintaining this idealized image when on board.
- Despite not being a single main protagonist (for there isn't one), Mike can fit this in The Young Ones. He's not standard in any way, but compared to the craziness of Neil, Rick, and Vyvyan, Mike seems much calmer and notably less funny (and by extension, popular). However, he leads the housemates into many of the main events and rather than acting as an audience surrogate, he acts as a set up for some of the jokes, without causing as many laughs himself. He is also involved in barely any of the slapstick violence compared to the other three, but he is usually in charge of what happens in the "story". A lot of people don't think much of Mike, but he provides a contrast that make the other three so funny.
- In most RPGs, the PC (player-created or otherwise) is this character. Such tropes as Featureless Protagonist and Heroic Mime come under this trope, so examples include Link, most Final Fantasy or Fire Emblem player characters, and nearly all characters on those two pages.
- Rare subversions tend to be in games which shade towards Interactive Fiction (where the PC is a fleshed-out character with their own personality) or towards Wide Open Sandbox gaming (where the Karma Meter and responses you choose in dialogue give your character personality. BioWare RPGs, especially the Baldur's Gate and Mass Effect series, provide good examples.
- In fact, the Bioware games go to almost the exact opposite of this trope, acknowledging that the player's character becomes an awe-inspiring demigod before the first story's even over, leaving plenty of room for the world to be even more impressed in the sequels. The player's uncanny and sometimes unlikely ability to lead (despite whatever other flaws they might have) is just as often called out.
- Lars Halford of Brutal Legend is an intentional example. A charismatic leader who lacks any skill other than leadership, it's only Eddie Riggs' talents as a Roadie that actually kicks his revolution into high gear. Also, his flaunting of his Big Good status to Big Bad Doviculus gets him killed automatically.
- Isaac, the (first) protagonist of Golden Sun, fits this trope to a T. In the first game, it's apparent from the way people talk about you and ask for your advice that you're the Only Sane Man of the group, and when he gets his own lines in The Lost Age he comes off as, more or less, Scott Summers of the X-Men.
- Matt O'Morph, while not particularly powerful, is the team leader in Everyday Heroes. This is mainly due to administrative competence, people skills, and seniority.
- Averted and played straight in Homestuck. The main protagonists, John, Karkat, and Jane are all leaders of their sessions, but have just as many quirks and foibles as anyone else, though they all are kind leaders. The Royalty of Derse and Prospit on the other hand are flat and have no personality aside from being leaders.
- Discussed in Joe Loves Crappy Movies, where they decide that the appropriate title for Leonardo and Cyclops is "Jacktard."
- Averted in The Order of the Stick. Roy is the Straight Man and most level-headed of his dysfunctional adventuring party; however, he is also a Determinator, a champion Deadpan Snarker, and has all kinds of issues with his dad.
- In Sluggy Freelance Torg and Riff actually call a starship leader out on being one of these, and point out that, in a story like Sluggy Freelance, he's pretty much cannon fodder. (Not as straightforward as you might think, though, since the dispute is also about who's the main character in the first place.)
- Mark, while far from leading the cast of Weregeek, is The Hero and protagonist. His only real trait is his burgeoning geekiness, and his naivety. The other members of the cast get way more personality.
- Captain Planet and the Planeteers showcased this immensely. Even though Cap himself took over when the powers combined, Kwame was technically the unofficial leader of the crew when the mullet wasn't around. And as mentioned before, he suffered from lack of personality and had no depth whatsoever, compared to Wheeler, who while impulsive and had a "never say die" attitude, was apparently a little too gung-ho and non-level headed enough to be leader of the Planeteers. Kwame was basically there to be superior to Wheeler and... that's about it. He was not helped by the fact that he had very few lines in many late episodes, apart from Stock Footage. Levar Burton got popular and expensive, and they used him less and less, but his character was still there, following the others around like a ghost until it was time to call Cap.
- Leader-1 in Challenge of the Go Bots was (obviously) the leader of the Guardian Gobots. He was also the most flat and uninteresting of the protagonists, to the point where one had to assume that he was only the leader because his name was Leader-1.
- Hank the Ranger in Dungeons and Dragons fulfills the trope so well that when one episode tries to present him as a traitor to the group, it's entirely unconvincing and falls epically flat.
- In Futurama Professor Farnsworth describes the leader of his first ever crew as a "dedicated young man with no characteristics."
- Ken Washio from Gatchaman (named Mark in Battle of the Planets).
- Fred from the original Scooby Doo.
- Some of the later shows and movies try to remedy this, to the point where the Fred in one incarnation can seem like a totally different character from the Fred in another.
- Superman, leader of the Superfriends. He has all sorts of superpowers, to the point where nothing about him stands out particularly.
- However comic book Superman is a poor example because he does have a very distinct personality, even if people may not be able to relate to his "boy scout" mentality or his struggle to remain humble in a world where he is practically a god. His rural Midwestern upbringing makes him a fish out of water in darker social situations, and his need to see justice and save the innocent becomes a motivation factor and an Achilles's heel.
- In Teen Titans, Robin has a weird relationship with this trope. If he's not the focal character of an episode, he'll usually play this trope very straight, but when he does take the spotlight, we get a pretty good look at his imperfections. In fact, Robin's major flaw is that he takes his job as the team's leader too seriously; he'll become so obsessed with defeating a villain (usually his Arch Enemy Slade) that he'll do anything, no matter how reckless, to bring them down, and will often become shockingly insensitive to his friends' feelings in the process.
- Leonardo is this in some incarnations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
- The Toxic Avenger ("Toxie") in the short-lived cartoon Toxic Crusaders. He was big, strong, ugly, and had a sort of spider-sense. All the other Crusaders were also big, strong, and ugly, plus they had quirky, unique, useful powers. It didn't help that Toxie had almost no personality, and his action figure was incredibly boring compared to the lavish designs and arsenals of accessories that the other characters in the toyline got.
- Optimus Prime in all his forms (possibly excepting the Transformers Animated version) cannot be tainted to The Dark Side. The fact that he's also one of the more imposing and martially skilled Autobots might make this something of a subversion; just putting Prime on the field will rout most Decepticon cannon fodder (unless they can occupy themselves by going after his subordinates, which might keep Megatron from killing them later). Some incarnations outright specify that Prime being such a beacon of purity and hope is his greatest weakness, he is so adamant about protecting innocents (such as humans) that he forgoes his own survival instincts or the idea of long-term victories in the war.
- Deliberately invoked with the Transformers Prime version. Ratchet described 'pre-Prime' Optimus as being more like Jack. Apparently becoming a Prime alters one's personality to fit this trope.
- Aqualad on Young Justice.
- Subverted he would be one if it wasn't for the chains of commanding looming over his head.