Lessons from the Galactic Empire

Why the scrappy rebel alliance was always destined for victory

A failure of leadership?

Those who know me will know I’m a Star Wars fan. A friend of mine, back in my Netscape days, and I would compete to insert Star Wars quotes into meetings. As I’ve spent more time in management, however, I’ve realised that the Galactic Empire is the archetype of a large number of crippling organisational dysfunctions. In fact, when I was talking about organisational dysfunction at Google I used to use the Empire as my example to describe behaviours I was starting to see at Google and wanted to highlight. That way I was less likely to get organ rejection (companies like Google, Facebook, Apple are quite cult-ish on the inside as people are heavily invested in them).

So why did the Empire lose? I believe that their demise was inevitable. They simply weren’t set up to succeed and the culture and behaviours were so toxic that it was only a matter of time. The small scrappy and motivated Rebel Alliance had every disadvantage you can imagine. They were smaller, less advanced, no market position and under constant pressure from their larger more established rival. What can we learn from this?

Purpose. What’s the purpose of the Empire? Those in the rank and file might say their purpose was to keep order in the galaxy. But it’s pretty hard to square that away with the behaviour of the senior leadership team — namely to destroy anyone who disagrees with you. In the early days, overthrowing the corrupt and ineffective Republic might have been more compelling not least to work through the strong ideological differences with your natural rivals, the Jedi. But once the Jedi are gone — what’s the goal? This lack of purpose meant the Empire was perpetually treading water trying to maintain what it had and unable to achieve real growth. This rubbed off on the people within the organisation. Also — what’s Palpatine’s exit strategy or succession plan?

Over-reliance on technology. When your answer to the problem is continue building more and more expensive technology then you have a problem. There’s a lack of subtlety in the build a bigger Death Star approach which suggests that technology is a silver bullet. It’s not. By failing to take into account the “human” side of the equation the Empire continued making the same mistakes over and over again.

Micromanagement. It’s clear that the senior leadership doesn’t trust their team to get the job done. The second Death Star is late? Send in Darth Vader to scare the crap out of everyone and tell them Palapatine is on his way. At every stage senior management (Palpatine and Vader) overrule their team to get things done. Which leads to…

Psychological Safety. “You have failed me for the last time.”. This is an organisation where mistakes are not used as learning opportunities. Differing opinions are not encouraged and the penalty tends to be as harsh as you can get. Team members know that if something goes wrong they’re going to get force choked (even if it’s not their fault — the reason the rebels shielded Hoth was they caught a probe droid not because the fleet came out of hyperspace too early).

Lack of transparency and empowerment. Because of the lack of trust in the team, senior management isn’t open about their plans. The head of the fleet above Endor is told to stand off without being told why (the second death star was operational). So when the rebel fleet rocks up and threatens the new boondoggle, the commander has a choice to make. He can’t contact his bosses because they’re busy trying to convert Young Skywalker so instead he does what any sane person would do in his position — engages the enemey. Net result — the rebels can hide among the imperial ships and survive longer. All they had to do was share this one key piece of information with a single person and disaster averted.

Being an untrustworthy partner. Deciding to leave an Imperial garrison on Bespin was the final straw for Lando Calrissian and let’s just examine this chain of stupidity. If Vader hadn’t screwed Lando on the deal then Lando wouldn’t have remembered which side he was on. He wouldn’t have rescued Leia and Chewie. They wouldn’t have saved Luke. Lando wouldn’t have blown up the second death star. Changing the deal was a dick move and Vader cost the Empire the war by doing so.

Internal conflict. It was clear that General Veers wanted the pleasure of attacking on Hoth. It is less clear why he was the one reporting the shielded planet to Lord Vader. By throwing Admiral Ozzel under the bus he made it apparent that people are prepared to play very hard ball against each other in this organisation. And don’t even get me started on Tarkin’s decision to Death Star his rival in Rogue One…

Expendable team members. As far as the CEO is concerned everyone is expendable right up to and including his right hand man. Admittedly there are good reasons you wouldn’t want Vader around moping after Padme. But openly telling his son that while you’re in the room? That’s a recipe for being thrown down an very deep shaft. In the same vein — Vader was happy sending Tie Fighter pilots to their doom chasing the Millenium Falcon into the asteroid belt. If you know your boss doesn’t mind you being collateral damage as long as they win — your motivation is unlikely to be high.

Morally questionable partners. You can tell a lot about the leaders of your organisation by the people and companies they partner with. Partnering with the bounty hunters to chase Luke was a clear message to the organisation that they weren’t up to the job. And a sign to those within it that there was no moral bar in play.

Punitive business approach. Killing everyone who might have come into contact with the droids served what purpose exactly? Oh, yes, that’s right. If they hadn’t burned his uncle and aunt alive then Luke wouldn’t have gone with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan. How did that work out for the Empire? Well it cost them at least one Death Star. Good job. In business you don’t want to upset your opposition so they have more reasons to win. Or give them nothing to lose.

Low hiring bar. This should be obvious. One of the reasons that Vader kept having to step in was that he couldn’t rely on his team to get the job done. They couldn’t lock down a planet to stop droids escaping. They weren’t competent to stop the rebels blowing up the death star. This culminated in the Empire’s darkest hour — Endor. When armoured troops carrying laser weapons had their asses kicked by teddy bears with rocks and sticks. Which leads to…

Lack of support for learning and development. There doesn’t seem to be any credible environment for learning within the Empire. There’s going to be no risk taking because pyschological safety. But what are they doing to bridge that skills gap? At least teach your troops to shoot straight.

Weak peer review process and engineering practices. The rewrite of history in Rogue One made me sad. But even then — if someone has designed a fatal flaw in the Death Star you would expect your enginering review process to catch it. Why only build one Death Star? What about N+2 redundancy. And let’s talk about AT-ATs. Don’t get me wrong — I love these big four legged bastards. But, you can trip them up. They can’t do mountainous terrain. This is a clear sign of an organisation that is designing things for fun because it has no competitors in the marketplace. This leads to engineering complacency.

Individual Contributor pushed into a Leadership Position. In many ways, Star Wars is the tale of an outstanding individual contributor, Vader, pushed into a leadership role he wasn’t ready for. No one taught him how to mentor and coach his people. He never learned to properly delegate. His boss clearly doesn’t have the time (or skills) to teach him his role and he’s floundering around (albeit lethally with a laser sword) trying to work out how to have impact. This is destructive for the rest of the organisation and, ultimately, for Vader himself.

Recruitment based on dishonesty. Join me and your girlfriend doesn’t die was how the Emperor sold his gig to Vader. How did that work out? Well, he has his enforcer get his arms and legs chopped off AND lose his girlfriend. That’s right, Vader’s not going to be dating any time soon. There’s no rebound here. Eventually you realise your boss doesn’t care about you and was lying when he hired you. Nobody is going to stick around for that.

Lack of diversity. I rewatched Star Wars and it became clear to me what the Empire are — a bunch of privileged white guys who think grey is a good fashion choice. I’m putting aside the English accents thing because that’s a little too close to home. The Empire had thousands of races to hire from yet it’s a monoculture. There’s no diversity of thought here. And it’s clear to the rest of the galaxy that you’re either in or out (and most of you are out).

We can all learn from Star Wars. The above traits and behaviours are all toxic to organisations and will cripple them over the long term. At the time they may feel like the right thing to do but you maintain the healthy culture of your organisation by doing what’s right — not what’s expedient in the moment. The culture of a company belongs to everyone in it — it’s not enough to sit back and wait for someone to come and fix it. You need to call it when it’s wrong. You need to call it when it’s wrong for other people too because they may not have the same ability to speak up.

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.

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