March 28th 2023
By: Benjamin Lafrenière-Carrier

How Star Wars characters demonstrate leadership styles

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the key figures involved in the conflict between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance had to mobilize the forces and resources at their disposal to achieve their goals. The manner in which these key figures carried out their responsibilities illustrates the various archetypes that can be found in the formal and informal leaders of our contemporary organizations. It is in this context that the following paragraphs propose to dissect the leadership styles and characteristics demonstrated by some of these characters, as well as the different situations for which these styles are appropriate… or not!

Authoritarian Leader (Darth Vader)

Even if we disregard the fact that Darth Vader represents the epitome of evil, the approach this character takes has the effect of centralizing decision-making power in his hands. We see him repeatedly giving direct orders to his subordinates, hinting at the lethal consequences of not cooperating or being competent with him. He does not hesitate to carry out his threats to officers of the Empire, as much to punish as to ensure the obedience of others.

When we look at the way he leads others, it seems clear that the transactional aspect of his leadership is highly developed, with an emphasis on reinforcement, hierarchy and discipline, but the transformational aspect is quite different. Indeed, the character and his authoritarian leadership style do little to develop the people around him and it is even noted that Vader has no apprentices or friends throughout the films in which he appears.

While not all authoritarian leaders embrace the dark side so clearly, it would seem that the results are often comparable. This style does indeed, when working with effective and competent resources, achieve great things. However, it produces motivation that is almost exclusively extrinsic and therefore of lower quality, while offering neither the latitude of action, nor the support or development opportunities that would allow subordinates to contribute fully to projects. Who knows… with a slightly less authoritarian leadership style, Vader might have been able to crush the Alliance!

Democratic Leadership (Yoda)

The way Yoda behaves as Grand Master of the Jedi Order with the members of his High Council is a second example of a leadership archetype that is described here as democratic. Indeed, despite all his qualities and influence, Yoda prefers to consult and guide others rather than give directives. This can be seen when he allows Anakin to be trained despite his reservations.

This leadership style allows for a certain transparency in the exchanges, which then allows for the support and development of his team members. Based more on a transformational style where human development and accountability are encouraged by acting as a model, by promoting the emergence of a common vision and by acting as a coach, democratic leadership allows for the development of individuals so that they are then able to assume a significant amount of responsibility. It also promotes the development of feelings of belonging, competence and autonomy that are central to the emergence of autonomous motivation in employees (Decy and Ryan, 1985; Forest et al., 2022).

The stories that have unfolded in this distant galaxy show us that Yoda’s democratic style is perfectly adapted when applied to the exceptional individuals that are the Jedi. However, we also see that, when exercised excessively, it did not allow for some difficult yet necessary decisions (such as not training Anakin) and would not have been as effective if the Jedi Masters had been less competent and dedicated.

Paternalistic Leadership (Obi-Wan Kenobi)

With both Anakin and Luke, the type of leadership Obi-Wan Kenobi relies on can be described as paternalistic. He repeatedly demonstrates that he views his apprentices as family members and attempts to foster their development while protecting them from themselves. In order to do this, the Jedi Master tends to impose his directions on them and then persuade them of the validity of his decisions while determining for himself what his protégés are willing to do or not.

The paternalistic style thus borrows some elements from the authoritarian style in that the leader considers that their approaches and vision are the right ones and that others should follow them. The approach and motivations are quite different, however, as this style is adopted here with the objective of fostering the growth and success of team members rather than focusing solely on achieving one’s own goals. By relying on both transactional tools to support performance and direct the work to be accomplished, as well as transformational tools to promote individual growth, this style aims to allow everyone to follow the directions of the paternalistic leader regardless of their level of competence or autonomy.

As a leader, this style allows Obi-Wan to guide his apprentices in the direction he sees fit. However, this style relies heavily on his judgment, which can be distorted by the emotional bonds developed through this leadership style. A paternalistic leader must therefore remain vigilant, have a good understanding of the situations that evolve around them and maintain a good capacity for judgment, or else they will lead their team in the wrong direction. We can see that some of Obi-Wan’s errors of judgment, when it came to Anakin, were particularly damaging on a galactic scale…

The “let it be” Approach (Han Solo)

Although easy to overlook given his demeanor and generally nonchalant approach to his responsibilities, Han Solo was promoted to the rank of General of the Alliance following his involvement in the destruction of the first Death Star. A strong advocate of “live and let live,” this character generally avoids giving instructions or imposing his views on others. This is an excellent example of a character who simply does not take on the role of leader seriously, let’s their subordinates be and yet achieves some success.

The example is especially telling when we look at the relationship he has with Chewbacca. The Wookie is both highly competent and highly autonomous, implying that Han’s lack of assumed leadership is not problematic. It would be different, however, with collaborators who need a certain amount of guidance to function. This means that the team members of a “let it be” leader must, for all practical purposes, be their own leaders. They cannot count on the leader to adopt supportive behaviours, whether it be more transactional task-based coaching, transactional resources that promote growth, or coaching that encourages the emergence of motivation. So the adoption of this style is generally damaging, except in those situations where employees don’t really need a leader.

In this case, it is not surprising that Chewbacca, after having his life saved by Han and swearing to follow him to his death, is the only member of his crew. Considering the role and influence Han could have easily had within the Alliance, one could even go so far as to say that he did not adequately fulfill his responsibilities. Had he taken on his leadership role, it is highly likely that this hero could have had a much greater impact for his friends and the cause he chose to embrace.

Leadership Styles

The four previous examples illustrate particularly well certain forms that leadership can take, which are more or less adapted to the situation. They also illustrate the positive and negative consequences as well as the risks associated with each. Appropriate supervision, which favors the emergence of an ideally autonomous motivation, as well as the judicious use of transformational and transactional leadership tendencies according to the needs of the employees and the situation, thus allow for a positive impact on the development and achievements of employees. Like “the Force”, leadership is a powerful tool, but it must be used and adapted to the context in order to be effective and achieve good results.

Benjamin Lafrenière-Carrier, B.A.A., CRHA

Senior Consultant, Talent Management at EPSI
Ph.D Candidate in Industrial Relations at the Université du Québec en Outaouais