which side of the force are you on?

How Star Wars characters demonstrate leadership styles.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the Empire and the Rebels of Star Wars dealt with many of the same issues as people of Earth face today when trying to work in groups. And much like with every civilization in history, leaders held the power to build up armies and alienate their people. In fact, the Star Wars universe is a perfect illustration of many forms of leadership and their respective strengths. By examining their behavior we can see what types of leaders are effective in differing situations, and apply these lessons to the workplace.

Leadership Archetypes

Authoritarian (Darth Vader)

Darth VaderThe authoritarian isn’t inherently evil; however, it is not uncommon for authoritarian leaders to create toxic work cultures, similar to the one Darth Vader ran on the Death Star. Autocratic leaders lead through orders which they expect to be followed and not through dialogues with their employees. And much like in Vader’s regime, insubordination is a punishable offense. A prime example of Darth Vader’s authoritarian leadership is when he strangles one of his Admirals as punishment for doubting Vader’s concern over the Force. The reason that autocratic leadership is ineffective in the Empire is in part because it does not allow people to express their concerns and views openly, nor does it allow qualified people to make suggestions easily. As such, the Empire loses much of its potential through its culture of fear of punishment.

That said, there are times in which autocratic leadership can be quite effective. When leading a group of inexperienced or very poorly organized followers, the use of autocratic leadership can help provide structure. Because autocratic leaders tend to control a great deal of their followers’ actions, it is a type of leadership that is most effective in a workforce that does not know how to make decisions for itself and lacks the motivation to do their work without the incentives placed by rewards and punishments.

Democratic Leadership (Yoda)

The democratic leader is someone who shares the decision-making responsibilities and abilities with his or her group. This is the leader who tries to make sure that their decisions are representative and beneficial to the majority of the group. Democratic leadership is characterized by the distribution of responsibility and the empowerment of one’s team. As Grand Master of the Jedi Council, Yoda served as the leader of an organization which operated with the idea of shared responsibility among the Council members. As the Council leader, Yoda listens to the input of the other members, while still presenting his own views, as he did in stating his belief that Anakin Skywalker should not be trained.

Yoda’s inclusive leadership style is best suited to groups with knowledgeable and experienced members who are able to take direct responsibility for aspects of their work, and can be held accountable for the impact of their decisions. While the principle of empowering one’s followers is beneficial in building a strong and motivated workforce, distribution of power is not always beneficial. In the case of workers without content knowledge, it can be better for leaders to take on a more traditional approach to decision-making, as opposed to sharing this responsibility with their inexperienced followers.

Paternalistic Leadership (Obi-Wan Kenobi)

A paternalistic leader is one who is concerned for their followers, and feels a responsibility to them. These leaders form strong bonds with their followers, resulting in loyalty towards both themselves and often their organizations. Obi-Wan Kenobi displayed paternalistic leadership in his interactions with his pupils (or padwans), such as Luke Skywalker, by treating him like a family member. Paternalistic leaders try to nurture their employees, and create a sense of family not only with themselves, but between each other, so that members of their organization are able to support and rely on one another. When employed effectively, paternalistic leadership can be very beneficial for employee performance and satisfaction at work.

However, as with the Force, paternalistic leadership can have a dark side. Due in part to the type of personal bonds formed by this type of leader and their followers, they can be prone to playing favorites and let personal feelings cloud their judgement. This very issue presented itself for Obi-Wan when he went against the wishes of the Jedi Council and decided to train Anakin Skywalker, despite the risk it posed to everyone. When employing a paternalistic style, it is imperative to try to maintain good judgement when making decisions that involve favorite employees.

Laissez-Faire (Han Solo)

As the leader of his one-person crew, his faithful sidekick Chewbacca, Han Solo is a perfect example of a successful laissez-faire leader. As the name suggests, a laissez-faire leader is one who doesn’t spend much time actively leading. While in leading the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo leaves Chewwy to do what is needed and assumes that things will work out alright. In this case, laissez-faire leadership can actually be quite effective, as Han is allowing his very competent crew member to make decisions he is capable of making, and for which he can be held accountable after the fact. Where laissez-faire leaders become a problem is in organizations with less experienced and skilled workers. For most low to moderately experienced employees, it is important to provide some structure and guidance to their work, in order for them to improve their performance on the job. Additionally, laissez-faire leaders do not motivate their followers to follow them, which can result in decreased commitment to work.

Leadership Styles

As the business world’s interest in leadership has grown, so has our understanding of the styles of leadership. Although the leadership archetypes are still applicable today, the focus has shifted from these types towards the more recently established leadership styles of transactional and transformational leadership. While the leaderships provide an easy method of categorizing the actions of people in positions of power, transactional and transformational leadership offer people methods by which to improve their leadership abilities.

Transactional vs. Transformational Leadership

Transactional leadership, which is sometimes seen as the first step to becoming a good leader, is defined as responsive leadership that works within an organization’s existing culture to encourage positive behaviors in employees in order to increase productivity and create an efficient workforce. While authoritative leaders focus on punishment to get rid of unusual or negative behaviors, transactional leadership is based on the use of rewards contingent on exemplary efforts or performance on the part of an employee. Instead of punishing poor performance, transactional leadership focuses of “Management by Exception”, in which the leader will put in place corrective measures to help employees meet their performance requirements. Leaders use both psychological and material rewards, in addition to occasional punishment for exceptional cases of unacceptable behavior. This is exemplified in Yoda’s training of Luke. While he may appear annoying and to be punishing Luke when he fails at his tasks, Yoda is in fact coaching Luke through continued practice to master his new skills.

Both transactional and transformational leadership styles are known to have positive effects on employee productivity and commitment, but the method by which they influence followers differ dramatically. Where transactional leadership is based on managing in response to employees’ actions and needs, transformational leadership is based on inspiring followers. These are the leaders who get people excited and invested in following them, through their charisma and their own clear devotion to the organization’s goals. Though not a leader in the same way as Darth Vader or Yoda, Luke Skywalker showed transformational leadership in the way he dedicated himself to the Rebel Alliance and showed individualized concern for Han, Princess Leia, and the droids. He even makes use of charisma (though not how we normally conceive of it) in order to get Han Solo to join his cause. It is through these transformational aspects that Luke is able to become a sort of leader, despite having little traditional authority at the beginning of his adventure.

With the next chapter in the Star Wars saga set to unfold at the end of this year, we will surely see new examples of the different types of leaders, and hopefully more effective leadership from the characters we already love. Regardless of how authority is managed in that galaxy far, far away, hopefully people of Earth can apply the correct types of leadership in accordance to their situations, and strive towards the use of more transactional and transformational practices when taking on management roles.


Anjali Date
Consultant, I/O Psychology


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