Leadership Principles of the Galactic Empire

Forbes writer Alex Knapp has an interesting article pointing out five supposed leadership mistakes made by Star Wars’ Galactic Empire. I think many of these supposed mistakes turn out to be quite reasonable once you realize what the Emperor’s real purposes were. Hint: Ruthless dictators don’t pursue the same goals as management consultants.

Here are the five supposed errors along with my comments:

Mistake #1: Building an organization around particular people, rather than institutions.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of the Galactic Empire made is its singular focus on the preservation of power for the Emperor and a few of his chosen lackeys….

Your organization needs to be structured so that talent is being developed on all levels of the organization, in order to ensure smooth functioning and ensure that it’s easy for people to rise in the organization in the event that key individuals leave.

This strikes me as a feature of the Empire rather than a bug. The whole reason why Palpatine established the Empire in the first place is precisely “the preservation of power for the Emperor and a few of his chosen lackeys.” Complaining that the Empire failed to ensure that “talent is being developed on all levels of the organization” is kind of like saying that the Soviet Union would have worked better if Lenin and Stalin had established a market economy instead of communism. It ignores the whole reason why the institution was established in the first place.

Mistake #2: Depriving people of the chance to have a stake in the organization.

By consolidating his power, the Emperor didn’t just ensure that his organization wouldn’t survive his death. He also deprived a key motivation for both his employees and the public-at-large: a feeling of having a stake in the success of the organization. The Emperor disbanded the Galactic Senate, removing the idea of any democratic stake in the government….

The Emperor or Vader gave orders and that was it. No further discussion…

[T]his is the worst possible way to get the best work out of your employees. Fear, combined with a sense of powerlessness, only inspires the bare minimum amount of work…

Again, feature rather than bug. “Fear, combined with a sense of powerlessness” may not “get the best work out of your employees.” But it’s a great way to keep the ruler in power, which was the Emperor’s real goal. It’s a formula that has worked for numerous dictators throughout history. See Lenin and Stalin again. The trouble only begins when weak-minded fool successors like Gorbachev start listening to their management consultants and ease up on the repression. As Machiavelli put it, “it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to make way.”

Mistake #3: Having no tolerance for failure.

In an early part of the Empire Strikes Back, the Empire attempted to wipe out the Rebel Alliance once and for all in the Battle of Hoth. However, because Admiral Ozzel took the Imperial Fleet out of lightspeed too close to the Hoth system, the Rebel Alliance was able to detect the Imperial approach and quickly begin its defense. Enraged by this error, Darth Vader used the Force to choke Admiral Ozzel to death. Captain Piett, Ozzel’s second-in-command, was then promoted to Admiral and given command of the Imperial Fleet.

This swift, decisive punishment of failure is a huge error of management….

Even beyond this one mistake, by adopting a management style of “failure leads to Force choking,” Vader developed an organizational culture that was destined to be weak. People would be afraid to offer feedback or suggestions, choosing instead to follow orders to the letter. This ensures that decisions are made at a very high level, and anyone under those levels will lack initiative or the ability to act on their local knowledge.

Once again, this misses the point. If Vader’s minions “lack initiative or the ability to act on their local knowledge,” they are unlikely to try to overthrow him and the Emperor. Moreover, it’s far from clear that the Imperial Fleet functioned any worse under Piett than Ozzel. The new admiral certainly had a strong incentive to succeed once he saw what the price of failure was! If he failed anyway, it was only because the plot demanded that the Rebels get away. If Vader and Piett had wiped them out in Episode V, the audience (including then-seven year old Ilya) would not have been as forgiving as Knapp seems to be.

Mistake #4: Focusing all of the organization’s efforts into a single goal and failing to consider alternatives.

When it came to the success of the Galactic Empire, the Emperor had one single idea that he was absolutely obsessed with: building the Death Star. The completion of the Death Star, with its ability to destroy entire planets, was the singleminded obsession of the Emperor. At no point do we ever see any alternatives broached…

It’s vital to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. You should always consider alternatives to your course of action and develop multiple plans for achieving particular goals in case one or more plans don’t pan out.

Actually, as I pointed out in my last Star Wars post, the Emperor’s real error was in not building enough Death Stars. He clearly had the resources to build many more. And if he had, he could have crushed the rebels even if he lost a few Death Stars to lucky shots in the process. Moreover, the Emperor did in fact build up a lot of other military forces with which to suppress the Rebellion. Remember the huge fleet commanded by Ozzel and Piett, which Knapp discussed in his previous point! If not for the demands of the plot (reinforced by numerous plot-holes), the powerful imperial military would never have been defeated by a bunch of ragtag rebels aided by primitive Ewoks.

Mistake #5: Failing to learn from mistakes.

The Galactic Empire devoted years, an enormous amount of money, and an enormous amount of manpower to building the Death Star. After it was built, the Death Star only successfully completed one mission before it was destroyed by the Rebels. And the Empire’s response? Build a bigger, newer Death Star to serve as a target for the Rebel Alliance. In the second case, the Death Star wasn’t even completed before the Rebels managed to destroy it again.

Despite the failure of Force choking Admiral Ozzel to improve performance by the Imperial Fleet, Vader Force choked Captain Needa after his failure to capture the Millenium Falcon shortly thereafter.

Both the Emperor and Vader were obsessed with turning Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force, even after Skywalker made it clear that he’d rather die than abandon the Rebel Alliance or join the Dark Side….

While it’s admirable to not let setbacks hold you back from pursuing your goals, its vital to learn from every failure in order to correct your course of action. Failing to learn from your mistakes and repeating them will inevitably lead to the destruction of your organization.

Here, it’s possible that Knapp has pointed out a real flaw in the Empire’s strategy. But let’s remember that in each of these cases, they failed in their first attempt only because of random coincidences and plot holes (Han Solo just happened to arrive in the nick of time in Episode IV; the Death Star was destroyed by a lucky shot just before it would have wiped out the Rebels; and so on). A good leader doesn’t discard a sound strategy merely because low-probability events derail it the first time he tries it. How was Palpatine to know that the writers had it in for him to such an extent that his brilliant plan would fail the second time around because an “entire legion of [his] finest troops” was defeated by an army of stone age teddy bears? But for that ridiculous turn of events, the Death Star would – as the Emperor points out to Luke – have remained “quite operational.” And the Rebels would have been wiped out. Ultimately, the great Emperor Palpatine was done in not by his own mistakes, but by the even more powerful Emperor George Lucas.