6 Lessons That IT Leaders Can Learn From Darth Vader

Star Wars: A New Hope was a transformative movie from my childhood, and with the upcoming release of Episode VII later this month, I wanted to share some key lessons that we can learn from Darth Vader.  While he was not the most understanding and supportive leader, there are multiple insights that you can glean from his unique management style.

star-wars-darth-vader-darth-vader-and-apprentice-hiForce choke is not always the answer
Okay, let me start by saying that force choke is an amazingly cool skill.  Imagine using this (for a short duration) to expedite those excessively long meetings!  Meetings aside, ruling your team with an iron fist is a poor strategy because fearful employees are not open to new ideas or innovative thinking.  Instead, these nervous colleagues will default to a “whatever you say is right” mentality which limits creativity and innovation.

Vader provides a good example of how force choking can be detrimental to leadership.  In a scene from A New Hope, Admiral Motti mocked the Force and boasted about the power of the Death Star.  Rather than focusing the discussion on an analysis of the Death Star’s potential weak points and the power of the force, Vader immediately followed the punitive course of action and force choked Motti.  While Darth Vader’s actions illustrated his absolute control, he missed an opportunity to exercise true leadership in discussing the force and the Death Star in more detail.

While there clearly are times when strong actions and words are mandated, this tool, like force choking, needs to be used selectively and a little of it will go a long way.

Compassion can be good
It is easy to feel angry when projects do not go as expected.  The natural reaction for many of us is to let our frustration show and act in ways that illustrate our annoyance.  However it is always helpful to remember that the person (or people) you are working with may be facing similar challenges.  Hence they may also be feeling frustrated and by understanding their viewpoint and showing compassion, you can help everyone be more successful.

Interestingly, Vader is not known as a compassionate leader, but he has demonstrated the skill.  For example at the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader realized that he had a daughter and that deep down inside he really loved his son, Luke.  He demonstrated his compassion by using his last breaths to kill the Emperor and by so doing protecting Luke and his daughter.  It was only at the end of his life that Vader realized the importance of compassion and as IT leaders, we have an opportunity to embrace this tenet earlier in our careers.

Focus is critical
In this world of constant IT change, it is easy to get distracted by numerous technologies and projects.  Without a focus on the key goals and strategies of your business, you can get mired in details and miss the bigger picture.  As leaders, we must stay focused to ensure that our business is achieving success.

Vader provides an excellent role model for this skill.  As a leader, there was no doubt of what his goals were – total galactic dominance.  He knew that by creating critical assets like massive star destroyers and a huge battle station that he could drive the empire forward.  Additionally, he was so focused that he would not let small road blocks like a rebel outpost on the planet Hoth get in his way.  If he encountered obstacles, he knew exactly how to overcome them.

Build leaders
Building team leadership was not Vader’s forte, and it should be yours.  A successful leader does not work alone, but rather he/she empowers their employees to make decisions and build their leadership skills.  Naturally, team members will make mistakes and it is the leader’s job to educate the team on what went wrong and what can be done to avoid the same problem in the future.

Vader struggled in this area.  Even as a young child, Anakin had difficulties fostering team relationships and it only got worse as he got older.  The Emperor, while a close confidant of Vader, was a very poor role model as he simply commanded Vader to perform certain activities with little thought of personal or career development.

A classic example of faulty leadership is in the Empire Strikes Back when Vader force choked and killed Admiral Ozzel who was the senior commander of the Empire’s fleet.  This unfortunate personnel choice resulted in the unexpected appointment of Firmus Piett as the new Admiral, a role that he was woefully unprepared for and resulted in the defeat at Hoth.  Had Vader handled Ozzel’s situation more effectively, the outcome at Hoth could have been very different.

Have a backup plan
We live in an uncertain world where even the best laid plans can go astray.  While we always want to achieve our goals, good leaders are flexible and plan for unexpected outcomes.  Without these plans in place, we put ourselves at risk of complete failure if we encounter obstacles.

Unfortunately, Vader was so focused on larger goals that he often neglected to assess how things could go wrong.  A classic example was the Death Star.  This formidable fortress was equipped with the most powerful planet vaporizing laser the galaxy had ever seen.  Yet with all this power, Vader (and his minions) missed a critical element – the thermal exhaust port.  It never occurred to them that small fighters like X or Y-Wings could penetrate the station’s fixed and airborne defenses, fly down a trench and launch proton torpedoes into the ports.  The oversight seems laughable from a distance, but it is likely that Vader was so focused on the bigger picture that he neglected to assess how things could go wrong.

While it is unlikely that you will be commanding the Death Star any time soon, you should think carefully about what can go wrong with any project and ensure that you have a recovery plan.

Lead from the front
Quality leaders lead from the front and are not afraid to engage in critical projects with their teams.  Employees value leaders who work side-by-side with them when things get tough.  It is through these joint efforts that careers are built and long-term bonds are created.

Unlike his mentor, the Emperor, Vader excelled in this area.  Emperor Palpatine sat in the shadows and issued orders while Vader was 100% committed and personally involved in multiple conflicts.  My favorite example was the Battle of Yavin.  During this critical conflict, Vader was not content to sit by and watch the tiny X-Wings and Y-Wing fighters assault his space station.  No, he used his personal TIE fighter and trained wing men to battle the enemies.  As mentioned earlier, he was 100% focused on achieving his goal – total rebel destruction – and as such, he led from the front.  The end outcome was unexpected but it was not due to his lack of effort.

Vader is arguably one of the most famous villains of all-time, and yet even with his menacing ways, he still provides insights into leadership.  Galactic domination is probably not your career focus (maybe it should be?  Becoming a dominate player in your company is a goal that many aspire to.)  Hopefully this blog post gives you some ideas to think about when it comes to how you can improve your skills.  In the meantime, I will see you in the ticketing line for Star Wars Episode VII.

About the Author: Jay Livens