by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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With the newest installment in the Star Wars movies series set to open later this week amidst incredible anticipation, I thought it a perfect time to examine leadership through one of the most popular figures in the series: Darth Vader. The entire series is founded on the time-tested battle between good (the Rebel Alliance and Jedi’s) and evil (the Empire and Siths). Darth Vader’s role as one of the top leaders on the evil side makes it very difficult for many people to accept that he was a leader. In our society we are quick to name leaders who we recognize as being on the ‘good side’ of any cause. When it comes to someone who is leading on the ‘bad side,’ we struggle to accept that these people are also leaders, even though they use many of the same skills and techniques that the leaders use on the good side. The main reason for this struggle with naming leadership is that we assign a value to the ultimate goal and if the ultimate goal of the leadership does not fit our ethical or moral values than we cannot accept that leadership is involved. In this case, the ultimate goal of Vader’s leadership is to wipe out the Rebel Alliance and the Jedi’s so that the Empire and Siths can have complete control. None of us would agree with the ultimate goal of Vader’s leadership especially when innocent planets such as Alderaan had to be blown up. However, it is hard to argue with the fact that he was displaying leadership skills, as described below, and ultimately was a leader despite our issues with his vision for a completely evil galaxy.
Transactional Leadership: Darth Vader was a master at transactional leadership, which is founded on a leader giving directions to achieve a goal and then rewarding or punishing based on performance towards the goal. It was very clear that all members of the Empire knew the consequences – a Force choke – if they failed to complete a task given to them by Vader. Admiral Ozzel found this out the hard way when he botched the raid on Hoth and was choked out via a ‘Skype’ session. The fear of the consequences, and the witnessing of these consequences enacted on others, motivated his followers to achieve success.
Leadership by Example: One of Darth Vader’s best leadership skills was that he lead by example at all times. He was an active leader who would not just send out lower-level employees – Stormtroopers – to do his bidding, but would rather fight right alongside them. He was at all times a part of any mission that he had tasked others with and would not hide behind his authority role to send others to do his work. A perfect example is when he got into his TIE Fighter to go after the Rebels as they prepared to blow up the Death Star rather than getting on a shuttle to escape. His leadership by example obviously motivated his ‘staff’ to fight harder when their leader was at their side.
Charismatic Leadership: Darth Vader was a charismatic leader in that he had an extraordinary effect on his followers. He had millions of highly committed and devoted ‘employees’ who believed in his vision of wiping out the Rebel Alliance. He does not fit our typical idea of charismatic leadership in that he was not a great speaker who could motivate others by his words, but his devotion to a vision that was shared by all members of the organization was charismatic. Many of his followers were willing to sacrifice all to achieve this vision, which is an example of charismatic leadership.
Of course, all three of these major leadership skills are implemented in the pursuit of an unethical vision – the complete annihilation of innocent people – which can make it very difficult to admit that Darth Vader was expertly implementing leadership skills. This is an example of why there is such a debate amongst leadership experts as to whether the value of the vision and outcome determines whether actions or skills are truly leadership. You may still be questioning whether he was a leader or not, but from my perspective as a PhD in Leadership Studies, I have no doubt that Darth Vader was a top-notch leader, albeit with a really bad overall goal, but what more do you want from a Sith Lord.