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Thwarted by the Dark Side: Poor Leadership and Vader’s Legacy

January 10th, 2002 by chief

This paper was originally submitted to Brooke Sheldon, Lisa Hussey, and Denise Mogge to satisfy the course requirements of IRLS 588 at the University of Arizona’s School of Information Resources and Library Science in the Winter of 2001.

The effort to understand and account for the varying styles of leadership, and the effectiveness of each in a particular situation, has resulted in a wealth of literature. Over the years, new theories and models of leadership have emerged, each purporting to account for factors that affect leadership and, in turn, followership. Scholars of the subject have examined leaders from history and business to analyze their styles, their strengths and weaknesses, and have attempted to trace a link between their legacies as leaders and the practices they engaged. The assumption here is that it is possible to learn by examples – both good and bad – and mimic or build upon successful approaches, and shy away from those that had devastating effects. Rarely, however, has anyone taken to explore the world of fictional leaders, and attempted to learn from examples not real, but imagined.

Fiction, in all its forms, allows for creators to draw out characters that are believable because they reflect real, lived experience – proportionally or through caricature. Screenwriters and novelists, poets and playwrights all have at one point or another worked for someone else. They have lived through work relationships and have learned from them. When they engage in the creative process, they write what they know, what they have seen, and what they have learned. Their creative work, then, while it may engage in the use of caricature to accentuate or amplify strengths and weaknesses, is a record of years of participation in working relationships and/or a record of history lessons well-learned. Additionally, the characters they create resonate with the consumers of their art because of shared experiences and shared values. These fictional characters are not free from the forces that control real relationships but are a product of them; they do not lead in a vacuum, but are drawn into a world that is similar to our own.

That said, the ability of fictional characters to provide instructive examples of leadership styles is evident. As mentioned above, caricature can be helpful because the qualities in which we are interested are amplified, which allows us to read them easily, and to interpret their success or failure as appropriate. In recent decades, a spate of pop culture representations of good and bad leadership has erupted. Homer Simpson can be seen as the ineffective father; Braveheart’s William Wallis is the valiant and inspirational motivator; most of the character’s from Office Space would be fired in a well-led business operation; J. K. Rowling’s Dumbeldore manages to ward off evil, keep spirits high (pun intended), and to engage the hearts, minds, and imaginations of hundreds of young students in the Harry Potter novels. However, despite this abundance of examples, perhaps George Lucas has succeeded in creating one of the greatest cautionary tales for the aspiring leader in his portrayal of Darth Vader’s devastating reign of terror. Darth Vader embodies traits that make most contemporary leadership scholars cringe. To illustrate this point, below are several leadership traits considered to be admirable or desirable in a leader, and a brief analysis of how Darth Vader meets, or more commonly, does not meet the requirement. Through this analysis, it should be apparent that Darth Vader, while perhaps an excellent manager, is hardly a skilled leader.

Power versus Authority

Joseph Cangemi suggests that the true leader must receive his power from his followers, but in most circumstances, leaders in fact wield authority over their followers. To further explain the critical difference between power and authority, he writes, “Authority grants the legitimate right of a leader to entice, even force, others to do what is considered important to achieve. Authority gives the right to coerce, punish, or reward individuals in the leader’s endeavor to achieve goals (161).” However, “Power is the individual’s capacity to move others, to entice others, to persuade and encourage others to attain specific goals… it is the capacity to influence and motivate people (161).” He points out that authority is merely granted by an organization, while power is awarded by those who will follow. This difference is crucial in that the way in which followers perceive their relationship with their leaders is defined by whether they regard their leaders as powerful, or merely authoritative. Followers will happily follow those who they have empowered, but will only grudgingly follow a person instilled with authority who has no power.

Darth Vader is of course a man endowed with authority – great authority – over his followers, but devoid of any real power over them. While many Imperial commanders fear him, they do not genuinely believe in him. Consider, for example, the sequence in the first movie, Star Wars: A New Hope, in which, despite his handed-down authority, Vader encounters resistance from one of the commanders. Vader cautions the men not to be too dependent upon the destructive power of the Death Star, as that “technological terror” is no match for the power of the force. While Vader receives his authority from the Emperor Palpatine, the force can be considered his source of power. Yet, the commander says to him, “Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes….” To which Darth Vader responds, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” while nearly strangling the commander to death. The behavior of the commander reveals that he does not want to grant Vader power, but he does recognize Vader’s authority over him, as acknowledged by his use of Vader’s title of Lord. Vader’s authority is inherent in his position. His attempt to lead by a personal strength that could be a true source of power fails miserably, and he is then left to depend upon his hollow authority.

Inspiring Trust

Most scholars of leadership will agree that in order to lead effectively, it is necessary for the leader to win the trust of his followers. Cangemi suggests that successful leaders exhibit traits that lead their followers to believe that they should be trusted (166). Ira Chaleff goes as far as to say, “…trust is the single most important factor on which followers evaluate a leader (27).” Warren Bennis delves further into this phenomenon when he writes, “A leader creates a climate of trust…. To do this, reward people for disagreeing, reward innovation, and tolerate failure. Don’t fire people because they goof (97).” It is the inspiration of trust that compels followers to imbue their leaders with the power spoken about above. Without trust and faith, a leader will have no followers, though she may have subjects, in the monarchic sense of the word.

Again, we see Darth Vader is not one to inspire trust in his followers. Rather, he controls by fear, building an environment charged with anxiety that is not conducive to productivity. For example, in response to the challenge offered by the member of the Imperial command mentioned above, Vader nearly strangles the man to death, which has a visible impact on the others at the table. In the Empire Strikes Back, Vader goes so far as to kill another one of his followers for a miscalculation that reveals the Imperial presence to the Rebel Alliance on the planet Hoth, saying “You have failed me for the last time, admiral.” Immediately, he turns to a shaken nearby captain and appoints him to the position of admiral – an outcome that makes the new admiral visibly uncomfortable. Vader is not one to tolerate failure, nor to reward his followers for disagreeing. Under these circumstances, it is impossible for Vader to do anything more than merely control his followers by force or coercion. With this approach, Vader is doomed to ultimate failure in that his people are merely following orders and not fighting for what they truly believe in.

Shared Values/Ability to Communicate Vision

Of course, the issue of what people believe raises further difficulties for our anti-hero. The creation and communication of a shared vision is another trait commonly considered essential to success in leadership. Chaleff suggests that “Followers and leaders both orbit around the purpose; followers do not orbit around their leader (41).” He explains that the core purpose (shared values) is the glue that binds participants in pursuit of a shared goal. Bennis writes, “To make dreams apparent to others, and to align people with them, leaders must communicate their vision (84).” This is of course not as simple as merely telling your desired followers your intentions – rather this means engaging them on a personal and passionate level. To do this, one must have certain shared values; otherwise the vision will be devoid of meaning. Gary Wills sums this up when he writes, “A leader whose qualities do not match those of potential followers is simply irrelevant: the world is not playing his or her game (65),” and later “A corrupt people is not responsive to virtuous leadership (66).” The flip side of this is equally true: virtuous people are not likely to respond to corrupt leadership. To communicate a vision to your followers, you have to speak their language.

It is this point that Vader seems to miss entirely. He knows what he wants, but he fails to recruit others who feel passionately the same as he does. His vision is one that he does indeed passionately pursue, however, his most desired follower is one that does not share the same core values. Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader’s son and most desired companion in becoming master of the universe, is a man that honors self-knowledge and self-control, whereas Vader has lost his own self in the dark side of the force and desires control over others. Young Skywalker even goes so far as to tell Darth Vader that he is out of touch with his true self. In The Return of the Jedi, Vader lashes out at Luke telling him that the name of Anakin Skywalker has no meaning for him, to which Luke responds by saying, “It is the name of your true self; you’ve only forgotten.” This we later find out is true. In the meantime, however, Vader persists in trying to sell Luke on a vision that is the complete opposite of what he would desire, and is based on conquest and control. In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader says to Luke, “Luke, you can destroy the Emperor…. Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” Vader’s value system is one that views authority and control over others as the ultimate goal – a goal that Luke does not share, which results in Luke’s steadfastness.


The closing sequences of The Return of the Jedi reveal that it is the denial of self and absolute power that drives potentially good men to be bad leaders. Luke, perhaps by virtue of his mentoring relationship with the immortal transformational leader Yoda, is able to achieve the impossible by driving Vader to find the goodness within himself again, and against all odds. Vader was at one point the virtuous and integrity-filled Anakin Skywalker, but he was seduced by the dark side of the force and grew further and further away from his true self. The consequences of that behavior destroyed him.

In terms of the most basic definitions, Darth Vader is no leader; rather, he is a manager, capable of obtaining results. The question is, of course, are the results admirable? In short, they are not. Vader may, to paraphrase Peter Drucker, do things right, but he rarely does the right thing. He is able to control subordinates, but only by fear. He is able to marshal the troops, but is unable to inspire them to self-directed action. And, most unfortunately, he is unable to win the support of those he needs most to achieve his vision. These factors alone can foretell the failure of an over-zealous aspiring leader, but perhaps the most striking aspect of this extended metaphor relates to one of Peter Drucker’s convictions. Drucker has said, “The test of any leader is not what he or she accomplishes. It is what happens when they leave the scene. It is the succession that is the test. If the enterprise collapses the moment [the leaders] leave, that is not leadership. That is – very bluntly – deception. Vader’s death at the end of The Return of the Jedi is quite literally the end of the Empire. Not having inspired others to his vision, Vader’s legacy of the Empire is nothing. The Rebel Alliance, led by such inspirational leaders as Yoda, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia Organna, is able to endure and to conquer darkness.

Works Cited

Bennis, Warren G. Managing People is Like Herding Cats. Provo, UT: Executive Excellence Publishing, 1997.

Cangemi, Joseph P. “Observations of Successful Leaders and Their Use of Power and Authority.” Leadership Behavior. Eds. Joseph P. Cangemi, Cash Kowalski, K. Habib Khan. Lanham, MD: Oxford UP of America, 1998. 161-170.

Chaleff, Ira. The Courageous Follower. San Francisco: Behrett-Koehler Publishers, 1995.

Drucker, Peter. Interview. Training and Development 52.9 (1998): 22-28.

The Empire Strikes Back. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford. 20th Century Fox,1977

The Return of the Jedi. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford. 20th Century Fox, 1980.

Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford. 20th Century Fox, 1983.

Wills, Gary. “What Makes a Good Leader?” Atlantic Monthly 4.273 (1994): 63-75.

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