Leadership Mistakes of Emperor Palpatine & Darth Vader

Forbes.com recently had an article pertaining to lessons learned from the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars universe (http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/02/13/five-leadership-mistakes-of-the-galactic-empire/).  It would appear that Forbes.com has is on a science fiction theme with leadership traits and qualities lately, and that is fine with me, as I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars.

Both Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine seem beyond their natural form, dark and twisted, artificial and mechanical.  Through the series of movies, both seem all powerful and mighty, leading a large force of military troops and ships, as well as what seems as an infinite amount of resources.  As most movie-goers already know, the mighty empire falters and experiences a fiery and violent end.

Normally people gravitate towards charismatic or virtuous people to learn from and to emulate.  However, sometimes lessons can be learned from those who lack ethics, use others for personal gain, or perhaps use their power or influence to exert control over others.  This article did a great job or documenting mistakes from the movie, and these can be used as lessons for modern businesses as examples of what not to do.  The lessons documented in the article are as follows:

1.  Building an Organization Around Particular People, Rather than Institutions

The Galactic Empire was a two person operation.  This master-apprentice relationship was characteristic of the empire.  The empire in a sense consisted of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader.  All other people, no matter how smart or experienced was of any consequence.  The enlightened individuals were completely out of the decision making process.

In the business world, an organization that is top heavy is probably destined for a failure at some point.  To have no succession plans in place or to not develop talent within the organization is not conducive for longevity.   Executive management and organizational leaders must analyze and plan for eventual departures of key people.  These may be founders or people in key management/leadership positions.  The nature of modern business tends to skew towards workers being more transient in nature.  The days of workers being hired out of college or when they are new to the workforce and retiring with the same organization are no longer.  In its place is an environment where people get a job, get skills, and move on to something else to continue a growth pattern.  Any organization should realize this and develop succession plans and to grow the talent of workers to minimize turnover, and to also have people in line to assume larger roles when someone decides to retire, leave, etc…  If the empire was a modern business, it would have all the talent and decision making power to a CEO and his second in command.  Nobody else would be factored in and this company would not prosper.  If either of these two leaves the company it will not survive.

2.  Depriving People of the Chance to Have a Stake in the Organization

From my experience any organization that does not create an environment where its members do not have a stake will never be prosperous.  Morale would be poor, and the overall attitude would be characteristic of indifference.  Would these individuals actually work hard to build in more quality into a product?  What kind of innovation would exist?  Would these individuals work as a team, or would they rather sit around and not do much of anything?  What kind of stake do the members of the empire have?  Clearly Emperor Palpatine has created a situation where these people are going through the motions.  Why go the extra mile when it does not matter one way or the other from their point of view.

To create an environment where members of an organization have a stake is relatively easy.  The main problem is to get upper management to release complete control and in a sense, allow others to make decisions that matter.  This does not just include simply paying people good salaries, but rather treating them with respect and listening to them.  When people feel like they matter, they will most likely be more innovative and take more pride in the goals and outcome of any organization.

3.  Having no Tolerance for Failure

Allow people to learn from mistakes and these individuals, as well as the organization, will be better off for it.  Darth Vader was not tolerant and had no problems relieving a commander of their duties.  Unfortunately for these individuals, this usually ended up with their death.  One failed objective or wrong decision could easily result in “being relieved of command”.  Managing or leading through fear or intimidation is a poor way to manage.  I thought the article brings up a great point by stating no tolerance for failure by upper management can lead to inner battles down further in the ranks.  If department manager fails to meet company objectives, they will be fired.  Applying this mentality to a business or organization, this allows people to be promoted by getting those higher up in the organization fired.  If someone does not like their manager they can be counter-productive and the manager fails to achieve a specific goal, and suddenly there is an opening for promotion.  This is not a positive environment and the turnover rates would be unacceptably high, not to mention fear of failure would lead to very timid decisions.

4.  Focusing all the Efforts into a Single Goal Without Alternatives

Modern companies need to be agile and adaptive to changing environments.  Gone are the days where companies can create new ideas and products after a long gestation of testing and product development.  Many businesses have been left behind because they once had a great product, and did not improve on it or move on, and thus left behind.  Organizations that are focused on one thing will ignore opportunities for growth and diversity.  What would happen to this company when their single product or idea is no longer relevant?  Polariod comes to mind.

Emperor Palpatine was so focused on using the Death Star for domination and control.  No apparent alternative plans were devised or entertained.  If the Death Star idea did not work out, what is the alternate plan to achieve his goals?  Using alternative methods would have given them a new direction when the original Death Star was destroyed.  Companies can learn from this example and should always be considering alternate ideas and methods to achieve their goals.  While it is praiseworthy to have a clear objective in mind, there may be multiple methods for achieving those objectives.  Agility and adaptability are key in these situations, for which the empire had very little of each.

5.  Failing to Learn From Mistakes

Did the empire learn from its mistakes from the first failure?  I would say not because they decided to rebuild the Death Star again.  The empire made the mistake of underestimating the rebellion the first time and yet still reverted to their original plan to use the Death Star as the vehicle for their conquest of the galaxy.  I think there is a difference between persistence and simply repeating mistakes.  In this instance, the emperor probably should have modified the Death Star, or had another plan in place.  Rather, he decided to sink a bunch of resources into a second Death Star.

For organizations that miss big with a new product, learning from mistakes can lead to a better chance of success further down the road with their next product.  Taking an example from Coca-Cola, when New Coke was introduced, once it was officially a failure, they quickly learned from their mistakes, and re-branded their original product as Coke Classic.  Had the emperor been in charge, once New Coke failed, he could have fired many of the management staff, and pushed for New Coke once again.  It is quite obvious in nature, but indispensable for a company to learn equally from successes and from failures.

Overall, the lesson that can be learned from this article is not necessarily insight into the Star Wars universe, but the realizations that not only can people learn from positive role models, but also from negative ones.  While an organization, or empire in this case, can be downright bad for society, sometimes people can learn what not to do, which can lead to successes and insight.

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