My colleague Dorothy Pomerantz notes that this weekend, the re-issued 3-D version of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," pulled down about $23 million at the box office. This got my mind to pondering the mistakes that people make, ranging from making the "Star Wars" prequels to reissuing them in 3-D to actually going to relive the misery that was "The Phantom Menace" all over again.
But mistakes are learning opportunities. And in thinking about "Star Wars," let’s leave the prequels behind and focus on the original trilogy. It occurs to me that the "Star Wars" films have a lot to teach us about leadership styles.
In particular, the Galactic Empire strikes me as a quintessential example of how not to effectively run an organization. Let’s take a look at five of the Empire’s biggest mistakes and see how you can avoid them in your own organization.
Mistake I: Building an organization around particular people, rather than institutions
Perhaps the biggest mistake the Galactic Empire made is its singular focus on the preservation of power for the Emperor and a few of his chosen lackeys. There is a constant we see starting with "A New Hope" and running through to the end of "Return of the Jedi" of the Emperor consolidating more and more power into his own hands and that of his right-hand man, Darth Vader. In "A New Hope," the Galactic Senate is disbanded in favor of regional governors hand-selected by the Emperor. By the time "Return of the Jedi" rolls around, the Emperor’s only advisor is Darth Vader, and his distrust in his organization is so complete that his only plan for succession is a desperate attempt to poach Luke Skywalker from the Rebel Alliance and get him to join his organization. Anytime your future plans depend on getting a rising star from a rival organization to join your team, you know that you have some serious institutional issues.
As the events of the movie make clear, the deaths of the Emperor and Darth Vader pretty much eliminated any opportunity for succession. A galaxy-wide organization was defeated simply by taking out two key individuals. Despite his decades of scheming, Palpatine’s organization barely lasted a day after he was gone.
Key Takeaway: 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. Responsibility should be distributed on several fronts, so that chaos doesn’t ensue if one person can’t be reached. Realistic succession plans are vital to developing an enduring organization.
Mistake II: 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 both his employees and the public-at-large a key motivation: 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. He wiped out all references to the Force, so there was no longer any guiding ideology. His sole idea for maintaining control of the Empire was building the Death Star, on the theory that, in the words of Grand Moff Tarkin, “Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.” Similarly, while in the first "Star Wars" film, there was a scene showing officers in the Imperial Navy discussing strategy, by "Return of the Jedi," it was clear that no feedback was being solicited anymore. The Emperor or Vader gave orders and that was it. No further discussion.
But as was ably demonstrated in this exchange in the movie "Office Space," this 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:
Peter Gibbons: You see, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
Bob Porter: Don’t ... don’t care?
Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s another thing, I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Porter: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.
Key Takeaway: In order to get the best work out of people in your organization, you need to solicit their feedback, engage them in the decision-making process, and ensure that they have a stake in the success of the organization
Mistake III: 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. First of all, mistakes are inevitable — especially in times where quick decisions are needed to be made on incomplete information. Rather than simply kill Admiral Ozzel, Vader should have attempted to direct him to a course of action that corrected his error. Instead, he threw the Imperial Fleet into organizational disarray as countless numbers of officers were suddenly thrust into new roles and responsibilities without the opportunity to learn them. This organizational chaos was undoubtedly key to the Rebels ability to escape in mass numbers, even as they flew perilously close to the Imperial Fleet.
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. What’s more, by punishing failure so harshly, the Empire provides an incentive for people within the organization to actually lead their superiors to failure. After all, the quickest way to promotion in the Empire is for your boss to make a mistake, so it’s in your own best interests to ensure that he does.
Key Takeaway: It’s essential to remember that failure is the engine of success. Mistakes are inevitable, but the key to making them is learning from them. It’s also vital to ensure that organizations are flexible, capable of quickly adapting to changing conditions and allowing for initiative and quick action at all levels, even if that leads to some mistakes.
Mistake IV: 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. No scenes between Darth Vader and the Emperor debating the wisdom of building a second Death Star so soon after the first one was destroyed. Nobody suggests to the Emperor that it might be wiser to develop more flexible ways for the Empire to destroy planets, such as combining the firepower of several Star Destroyers at once.
The only other goal we ever see the Emperor pursue, apart from the destruction of the Rebels, is to get Luke Skywalker to turn to the Dark Side and succeed Darth Vader and possibly the Emperor himself. As discussed above, having only one succession plan, based entirely around getting a key player from a rival organization to change his mind, showed remarkable lack of foresight. This singleminded obsession with one way to succeed is something that undermined not only the Galactic Empire, but also many other organizations throughout history. Kodak focused on film even after developing digital technology. Borders focused on brick and mortar years after it was clear that a strong Internet presence was key to the book business.
Key Takeaway: 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.
Mistake V: 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 Millennium 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.
You may see a pattern emerging here. Perhaps the Emperor and Vader were blinded by their success taking control of a millennia-old Republic and turning it into an Empire, but it’s clear that they became very overconfident in their own abilities. Despite making the same mistakes over, and over again, they still moved stubbornly, blindly forward without ever changing course. And then kept on moving forward without changing their paths until the Empire was destroyed.
Key takeaway: 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.
The bottom line: Ultimately, the Galactic Empire failed as an enduring organization because of incredibly flawed leadership at the very top. By building an organizational culture based on fear, lack of independence, and an unwillingness to adapt to changing circumstances, the Emperor set the stage for his own inevitable failure.
© 2012 Forbes.com