Six lessons from the Star Wars universe every leader should learn

  • Blog
  • 13th February 2016

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there were incredible new worlds, epic space-battles, enthralling characters – and some terrible, terrible leadership decisions. The best thing about other people’s terrible decisions? We get to learn from them. Here are five of our favourites.

SPOILER ALERT - if you haven’t seen “The Force Awakens” yet, 1) are you mad? Go and see it as soon as possible and 2) while we’ve done our best to be discreet, there are a few spoilers ahead.

1. Manage employee burnout effectively

After the Jakku massacre, a bloodstained and traumatised Stormtrooper FN-2187 silently contemplates the horror of what just happened. At this crucial moment, Captain Phasma walks by, and promptly tears him a new one for being seen in public with his helmet off.

And lo and behold, FN-2187 decides he can’t bear being a Stormtrooper any more. And springs the Resistance pilot from space-jail and leaves. And goes off and joins the Resistance. And helps them find the droid they’re looking for. And comes back and chucks his boss in a garbage compactor. And helps to blow up the Starkiller. So really, the whole thing is Captain Phasma’s fault! No wonder JJ Abrams keeps insisting she’s so important to the future of the franchise.

Great leaders know how to spot the signs of burnout - and take care to deal with them sensitively.

2. Handle conflict like adults

According to our sources, the two most wished-for superpowers are time-travel and telepathy. All these people are wrong, because the best superpower possible is clearly Darth Vader’s Force Choke. How much better would our lives be if we could remotely strangle people every time they disagreed with us in a meeting?

Okay, that’s a lie. Strangling people who disagree with you is a terrible idea. It’s not okay to punish people for suggesting you’re wrong (however obnoxiously they express themselves). Even if the person arguing with you is getting on your very last nerve, being the leader means being the grown-up. Apart from anything else, they may have something important to tell you. Which leads us nicely onto…

3. When your team speak up, listen

The person we feel most sorry for in the entire Star Wars universe is the poor, overlooked Imperial backroom guy who figured out that X-Wings + Shallow Trench + two-metre Exhaust Port + Photon Torpedoes = A Bad Day To Be On Board The Death Star, and tried his best to tell everyone, but they wouldn’t listen. Then Luke turned off his targeting computer and used the Force and fired his photon torpedoes, and that was that.

When a member of your team comes to you and says something like, “We’ve analysed their attack, sir, and there is a danger,” the correct answer is not to scornfully declare that “I think you overestimate their chances!” and get back to watching the action. It takes courage to tell the boss that something’s about to go horribly wrong. Your job as a leader is to honour that courage, and listen to what they’ve got to say.

4. Value all your employees – not just the ones who are like you

The defining feature of the Empire / First Order troops is their homogeneity. Row after row after row of identikit Stormtroopers. Despite the universe’s enormous species diversity, they’re all the same height, the same build, the same number of arms and legs and heads, dressed in matching armour, walking in step.

Now look at the Resistance. Multiple species are represented (holy shit, these days they even take you if you’re not white and not male! Who knew?). Clothes are chosen for practicality rather than consistency. People pick their own weapons and bring along their own droids. Differing points of view are handled through respectful debate, not choking each other to death. When they set out on a battle mission, none of the ships match.

The Rebels draw their strength from diversity, not sameness. They succeed because they know how to harness the differing strengths and talents of everyone in their team.

5. Have a long-term vision, not just a tactical plan

At the end of “A New Hope”, the Rebellion blows up the Death Star, and there is great rejoicing. Despite this, in “The Empire Strikes Back”, they’re still on the back foot and on the run – barely making it off their Hoth base before the Empire blow everything to bits. Then in “Return of the Jedi”, the Empire have built another, even better Death Star, which the Rebellion also manage to blow up, taking out Vader and the Emperor along the way; and once again there is great rejoicing.

And yet, at the start of “The Force Awakens”, the Rebellion / Resistance still aren’t in charge, and the Empire / First Order still have all the good kit plus a massive and well-equipped space fleet, and have managed to build yet another planet-crushing WMD. Even when the Resistance manage to blow that one up as well, you know in your heart that’s not the end of the First Order.

The Rebellion are brilliant tacticians, but terrible strategists. Their focus is “get the bad guys” when the part that really matters is “so we can run things in a much better way afterwards”.

Say what you like about the Empire (and plenty of people have made a convincing case that the Empire were actually not as bad as we all think), but at least they knew how to get things done.