Be a Leader, Don’t be a Hero: Leadership Lessons from Star Wars
Like most Hollywood movies, individuals’ courageous acts established some of the most memorable moments from the Star Wars series: the almost impossible bombing attempts, the dazzling lightsaber fights between good and evil, the sacrifices made by countless characters for the freedom of the galaxy, etc.
These scenes make your heart pump fast, your blood boil and your emotions rise because they depicted the true heroes — fearless, altruistic, stout-hearted and resolute.
To make it more exciting for the audience, most leaders in the series performed such self-sacrificing acts to protect others: Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Luke, Leia and many others. As a fan, I appreciate what they have done to create the perfect emotional moments, protected our main heroes and pushed the development of the story. However, when looked at these behaviors from a follower’s perspective, it made me feel uneasy.
Let me give you an example.
In The Last Jedi, one of the emotional moments is when Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo refused to board a evacuating transport vessel but instead stayed on the ship and sacrificed herself by flying the ship at Snoke’s flagship at light speed, giving the remaining rebels precious time to escape. It is indeed a heroic act. But a big-screen gallant figure may not be appropriate for leaders of modern organizations, especially in situations of urgent change.
Why? Because in times of change, uncertainty, chaos and fear ensue. Leaders who successfully manage change provide clear responsibility and priorities with extensive interaction; they provide freedom to improvise to better search for solutions; they communicate the vision of change. They also combine the use of role modeling, empowering and motivating employees. By doing so, they intend to give clarity, gain trust, maintain order and make a successful transition.
A “heroic” leader, on the other hand, will simply charge forward with what he/she thinks is the right thing to do — all while expecting others to just trust and follow their lead. They set their minds to sacrifice their self-interests for the organization — “It’s for the collective good,” they think to themselves. So they believe it is reasonable to expect others to just “listen to me” or “let me handle it.”
None of the strategies or plans are directly explained to the followers; no visions are properly communicated. Their emphasis is on control and compliance — rather than empowerment and change.
Walk the talk is important, but you have to first give the talk.
In that same movie, The Last Jedi, the improvising Poe Dameron was considered impulsive and reckless, and he was ordered to stand down and follow orders. Such a lack of transparency caused severe conflict between Holdo and Poe, which resulted in Poe carrying out another plan behind Holdo’s back and eventually initiating a coup attempt (read more on how Yoda’s lack of transparency drove Anakin Skywalker to the dark side HERE).
The heroic act of Holdo was implanted to make the audience (and Poe) realize with shock, and maybe a slice of guilt, that we’ve wronged her the entire time. However, there is a possibility that the ship may have survived if plans were discussed and refined among ship members.
Throughout the series, the same type of heroic leadership was also found in many main characters: Luke sacrificed himself to give the remaining rebels time to escape Kylo Ren’s encirclement without telling anyone his plan (he left others to figure out on their own during the time of life or death!); Leia sacrificed herself in The Rise of Skywalker to save Rey and Ben without informing the remaining rebels on what they should do next (she was their ONLY spiritual leader at that time of despair!); not to mention when Anakin was a general for the clone army, his troops don’t know his impromptu intentions half of the time (as one trooper mentioned in The Clone Wars show: A lot of General Skywalker’s plans involve falling).
Leadership researchers Manz and Sims argued in a research paper on heroic leadership that:
“The most appropriate leader today is one who can lead others to lead themselves. The more traditional image of a leader as a striking figure on a rearing white horse, crying “Follow me!,” may represent an incomplete view of leadership.”
Star Wars depicted some of the best heroes, but not so great leaders. To be a good leader, you don’t need to be a hero.
 Brown, S. L., & Eisenhardt, K. M. (1997). The art of continuous change: Linking complexity theory and time-paced evolution in relentlessly shifting organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42, 1-34.
 Van Der Voet, J., Groeneveld, S., & Kuipers, B.S. (2014). Talking the talk or walking the walk? The leadership of planned and emergent change in a public organization. Journal of Change Management, 14, 171-191.
 Gill, R. (2002). Change management--or change leadership? Journal of Change Management, 3, 307-318.
 See Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
 See Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker
 See The Clone Wars television series
 Manz, C.C., & Sims, Jr., H.P. (1991). Superleadership: Beyond the myth of heroic leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 19, 18-35.
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