star wars leadership

Leadership on Film: 5 Lessons from Star Wars: Rogue One

Posted on January 6th, 2017

Perhaps over the course of the festive season you had time to indulge yourself in a few trips to the cinema. If so, then you might have seen Disney’s latest addition to the Star Wars saga, Star Wars: Rogue One.

The new film is designed as an immediate prequel to the original classic, A New Hope – which, you may remember, concerns the destruction of the Empire’s new Death Star by Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the rest of the Rebel Alliance.

Star Wars: Rogue One tells the story of how the Death Star plans were stolen by the Rebels in the first place. The film follows Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (the reluctant designer of the Death Star), in her quest to retrieve her father’s plans for its destruction.

It involves a new cast of characters including a rebel captain, a blind Jedi monk, and a re-programmed Imperial droid. As always there are space battles, loud noises and references to ‘the Force’…

Rogue One banner
Leadership on Film

Given that our blog post based on the 2015 release Star Wars: The Force Awakens has become one of the more popular posts in the LDL archive (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Leadership Do’s and Don’ts”), we thought we would complement it this year with another – this time perhaps adding a little more detail!

As a leadership and management training consultancy, we might add that this foray into film studies is not entirely self-indulgent. In fact, while the study of leadership theory is important, that theory must always be grounded in practice – and films actually provide excellent case studies for reflection.

Action-adventure films in particular, involving as they do a quest in which heroes have to struggle to survive, provide very fertile ground. Whether considering X-men or The Hunger Games or The Dark Knight, films provide often illuminating examples of how leadership emerges, why it sometimes fails, and how it can gather traction.

This is of course great news if you happen to be a film fanatic! All you need to do while watching is to pause occasionally and ask yourself: what is this movie trying to teach me about leadership? And how far do I agree?

Leadership in Star Wars

Star Wars is perhaps a classic example so far as leadership in film is concerned. Through its clear delineation of a good side and a bad side, each with its own characters and management structures, obvious lessons emerge about the way in which leadership should be practised.

Although it is a fiction, anyone watching the film is invited to ask the question: Which side of the Force will you join, and why?

darth vader leader
Image via BagoGames
5 Leadership Lessons from Star Wars: Rogue One

For the purposes of this blog, we have included five important lessons that we think those in a leadership or management role can learn from the most recent instalment, Star Wars: Rogue One.

Lesson 1: Empower your people

The first lesson concerns the way in which power or leadership is actually distributed within an organisation. There is a very clear contrast here between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire.

Whereas power in the Empire is concentrated in the hands of the few (Darth Vader/the Emperor), following the model of the single powerful leader who operates through command and control, with the Rebellion we find a more distributed model. This involves reliance on a broader base of leaders, empowered to collaborate, take initiative and assume responsibility for the mission’s success.

Indeed although there is still a clear hierarchy within the Rebellion Alliance, the formal hierarchy here is not the end of the story. This means, among other things, that there is space for new leaders to emerge.

Take central character Jyn Erso for example. Soon after being rescued from a labour camp, we find her trusted with a blaster (Star Wars speak for a big gun), allowed to fight, giving a speech to top decision-makers and finally leading a volunteer expedition – ultimately saving the day.

By contrast when weapons developer Orson Krennic seeks recognition for his role in the construction of the Death Star, Darth Vader only asserts his own power and dominance. “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations” answers Vader as he almost strangles Krennic to death.

Lesson 2: Cultivate shared values

The above idea of distributing leadership so as to empower people at all levels of an organisation – rather than just those at the top – is an important one in today’s fast-moving business environment.

Take the example of Terri Kelly’s approach as CEO of Gore, one of the most innovative companies in the world. In an article for Management Exchange titled “No More Heroes: Distributed Leadership“, Kelly writes that “it is impractical to expect the single leader to have all the answers…”

“It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization.”

Creating and maintaining an ’empowered organisation’ is not easy however, and Kelly stresses the need to embed a set of shared values. These are the values which underpin the character of an organisation, and they are important because they give people a language with which to communicate, as well as standards to hold each other accountable.

Consider for example how Jyn Erso is able to appeal to the language of hope when seeking to persuade the Rebel Alliance to launch an expedition to steal the Death Star plans. Or how mutual recognition of the importance of helping friends leads to unspoken agreement in the heat of battle. The shared values of the Light side underpin Jyn’s ability to function as a leader.

Even the Empire functions, insofar as it does function, because all the captains and generals seem to share the same set of values as Darth Vader and the Emperor – including a love of power and a complete lack of empathy. The toxic values of the Dark side however do not secure the buy-in of its employees, including scientist Galen Erso and cargo ship pilot Bodhi Rook – who both do their best to help the Rebellion.

Lesson 3: Develop relationships

We live in a world where the team is now the fundamental organising unit of the workplace. This means that learning to be an effective manager or leader is also about learning how to be an effective team-builder, and this involves developing relationships.

We see this in Star Wars. In fact, the Rogue One team is so effective as a team, that it is difficult at some points to identify one single ‘leader’. Whereas we are always sure who the leaders are on the Dark side, at different points in the story, different members of the Rebel team take a leading role. The characters stand up for and help each other, and their different abilities come in use at different times.

“I don’t need luck, I have you” says blind monk Chirrut Imwe as he encourages his friend Baze Malbus (the one with the big gun on his back) to accompany him in helping Jyn Erso save her father’s life.

In the LDL article “How to Build the Perfect Team” based on the research of Google’s Project Aristotle we identified the two key points in successful team-building: empathy and conversational turn-taking. Now consider this in relation to Star Wars, where each character on the Light side is given engaging dialogue, and each shows empathy – versus the Dark side where employees all sound the same (including British accents) and can literally be strangled to stop them from speaking…

In effective teams, like the Rogue One crew, it is possible to see leadership as no longer belonging exclusively to the most senior member in that team, but as a property of the group itself, which is a product of effective relationships and always more than the sum of its parts.

Jyn Erso leadership
Jyn Erso – image via Bago Games
Lesson 4: Build a Compelling Vision

In Start With Why, Simon Sinek argues that the most effective way to inspire engagement with an organisation is to start with the reasons ‘why’. And it is certainly important to consider the impact that organisational vision has on the success of the respective sides in Star Wars.

To begin with the Dark side, the vision is to build a super-weapon with the capacity to destroy entire planets and secure world domination for Darth Vader and the Emperor. No wonder scientist Galen Erson resists playing a role!

Krennic: We were on the verge of greatness. We were this close to providing peace and security for the galaxy.

Erso: You’re confusing peace… with terror.

Krennic: Well, you have to start somewhere.

With the Light side by contrast, there is a dream about ending the sovereignty of the evil Empire. Remember, the crucial moment in winning Jyn Erso round to the Rebellion’s cause is the conversation she has with Forrest Whittaker’s character, Saw Gerrara. She has no interest in joining the Rebellion to begin with, she wants to be on her own as she has been for most of her life, but he turns her round – not by offering complex incentive plans, but by inviting her to participate in a narrative of resistance against tyranny and evil.

Lesson 5: Practice Mindfulness

The most frequent line in the entire film is the mantra, “I’m one with the Force, and the Force is with me”, recited again and again by blind monk Chirrut Imwe as he composes himself for some amazing feat of martial skill in a situation of grave danger.

So then, as a final lesson from the film – and acknowledging the fact that the Force is, so far as we know, not a feature of real life – we can recommend practising a little mindfulness when you need to unwind and refocus. There are plenty of articles which will show you what to do, and in fact much research to indicate that it is a good idea. (Try this article from the Harvard Business Review)

There’s not much to it. Just take a moment away from your desk to shut your eyes, breathe in deeply, and chant with the Jedi:  “I’m one with the Force, and the Force is with me.”

May the Force Be With You…

Think about the characters the next time you watch a Star Wars film, or any action adventure film like it. Ask yourself: who are the leaders here, how does their leadership operate– and why do people follow?

Follow the lessons above and you could be on your way to building an organisation as vibrant and successful as the Rebel Alliance.

Learn more about LDL Leadership & Management Training

Read more LDL leadership blogs, including “How to Build the Perfect Team: The Importance of Psychological Safety“, and the original Star Wars blog, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Leadership Do’s and Don’ts

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