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A good boss Yoda is not: leadership lessons from Star Wars


The year 2019 was a great time for Star Wars fans. Nine films and 42 years later, we finally get to see the ending of an epic space opera. 

For Meng Li, a leadership development consultant at the Leadership Initiative of Fisher College of Business, the series is not only a story on balance of power and the clashing of good and evil — it also taught us some good lessons on leadership.

And what not to do.

Where Yoda failed as a leader

The series depicted the tragedy of a few individuals’ self-destruction by choosing the dark side. Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) was one of them. Li said the most striking aspect of Anakin’s storyline is not what a pity it was that he chose evil over good — but how his leaders, especially Master Yoda, failed him.

How? Li explains.

Although he was designed as a just and righteous character, Yoda led and guided Anakin in a way that doesn’t fit with principles of organizational justice research.

Li, who has written about the importance of leading with justice, said giving employees channels and opportunities to voice their opinions, concerns and ideas can not only help the organization to continue to improve and grow, but it can also increase employees’ perceptions of procedural justice.

"In many occasions, when Anakin voiced his concerns, instead of patiently listening to him and offering him consideration and suggestions, the master simply directly told him to give up what he cares about," Li said.

(And by the way, Li says using authority to pressure others is one of the worst influence tactics.)

Mysterious actions lead to the dark side

Another key ingredient for leaders to improve procedural justice is to be transparent in their actions and decisions — an area Master Yoda failed to perform.

Although viewers knew about Anakin’s dangerous background and the reasons behind some of Yoda’s decisions, none of this information was shared directly with Anakin. This is especially apparent when Yoda first declined to train Anakin as a Jedi by using the excuse of “he is too old,” then rejected Anakin’s request to go through the trial of becoming a Jedi master by saying “he is not ready.”

In modern organizations, lack of justice and transparency can lead to increased employee dissatisfaction, less trust toward the leader, less commitment to the organization, higher turnover rate and lower performance.

A recent study conducted by the Fisher Leadership Initiative also showed that when leaders operate secretly and withhold information from employees, employees tend to exhibit more emotional exhaustion, dissatisfaction and more confusion and conflict when it comes to their work roles.

In the series, Anakin eventually turned his back to the Jedi council and joined the dark side, which helped put an end to the legend of the Jedi. In reality, many unhappy employees become the whistleblowers who eventually help bring down the organizations (one example: the fall of the once Silicon Valley star Theranos).

What leaders can learn from the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker

So what can you do to improve on Yoda's example? Make employees feel that they are listened to. Even when actions or changes are inapplicable, the simple gesture of acknowledgment and welcoming them to offer their voices in the future is enough to make employees feel heard and respected.

Meanwhile, as a leader, it is important to be transparent with employees when making decisions or adopting actions. Secrets and deceptions are good only for big-screen dramas and are toxic to employees and the organization.

This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in Fisher's Lead Read Today