Lead with the best version of yourself.

Lessons From the Dark Side: Leadership by Vader

by Eric Shockley

The presentation with the Emperor had not gone well. Progress on the completion of the Death Star had been slow.  Delays, complications with contractors, hiring challenges, and the ongoing war with the Rebel Alliance had all negatively impacted the site becoming fully operational. The Emperor had honed in on every task with a Red completion status, quizzing Vader relentlessly for over six hours. He’d been on the job for all of two days. As he let out a slow sigh, he remembered that this was the life, the constant demands simply a given now that he was a senior leader.

He turned his attention to the printed page sitting in the output tray of the printer.  His first policy letter as the leader responsible for the Death Star, he knew from years of experience that he could only solve his problems by starting at the beginning.  Organizational culture was the foundation of everything. He reflected on those years of experience as he gave the policy a quick proofread.

“We must support the goals and intent of our higher headquarters.” Vader understood the importance of this, but in his initial interactions with subordinates he had not seen levels of loyalty comparable to his own. “This is a different generation,” he thought to himself. Leaders of his era knew that their most important task was the visible display of support to the next higher leader. As a young Jedi, Vader had often struggled with understanding this. His idealism had clouded his view. “I was a fool then,” Vader often reminded himself. He had invested too much effort in trying to take care of his team, even when protecting the team ran counter to the goals of the Jedi leadership. Now he knew better. His subordinates were likely unhappy about his leadership style, but they would learn. They had to understand the importance of supporting him, just as he focused explicitly on supporting the Emperor. Done right, they could advance up the ranks just like he had.

“Trust but verify.” Vader had learned this lesson early in his time with the Empire, and it had always served him well. Too many times a subordinate reported something as complete, only to reveal that it wasn’t once Vader began his intense questioning. He remembered a leader, years before, who had argued with him on this point. That leader had believed the two elements of trust and verification to be completely incompatible.  “Vader,” he had said, “if you trust then you don’t have to verify.” That leader was long gone now. As it had been told to Vader, the leader had allowed a subordinate to make a decision, and it hadn’t gone well. Yes, verification of every task was the best way to demonstrate trust. Vader smiled. Trust was important to building the team, just as the Emperor had told him in their initial discussions about the status of the Death Star.

Now Vader turned to the last portion of the policy, the portion about the members of his team.  “Our Stormtroopers, and their Families, are our most important resource.” He had used that line in previous policies, when speaking to the team, and during engagements with senior leaders of the Empire. He had even said it last night in a meeting about maintenance. Over the objections of his subordinate commander, Vader had recalled a department’s mechanics to duty despite their having finished a 24 hour shift only a few hours earlier. “This report needs to be fixed, commander. Remember, it’s about taking care of people.” It was irrelevant that the mechanics themselves had no impact on the accuracy of the report. Getting the Death Star operational was of primary importance, and the accuracy of the report was hindering that. As a young leader Vader would have responded by pulling the commander aside and providing some one-on-one coaching. Now he knew that such efforts were a waste of time, one more organizational leadership fad. Problems, no matter how small or tangential, must be fixed immediately. That’s how you take care of the team.

At this point, dear reader, you’ve likely found yourself disagreeing with Darth Vader’s view of things. You may agree on some of his ideas but recognize that he doesn’t exactly view those ideas in the same way that you do. A reasonable person might say that Vader has lost his way and is skewing the intent behind what he’s written. The point of this article is to prompt you to look inward and ask yourself “Have I done the same thing?” If you choose to take that step, I recommend you using the following questions to drive that process (these can also be applied to Vader’s points that I’ve laid out in this article):

Are there things that I don’t say that I do, but I do them? Vader doesn’t say that supporting the commander is the most important thing, he says that supporting the higher headquarters is.  However, in his actions his focus is on supporting the commander. As leaders, we can conflate the two and without realizing it elevate something in priority without explicitly stating it.

Are there things that I say and do, but shouldn’t? The use of the “trust but verify” mantra is just one example of things that we say on a regular basis, but if we actually think about what we’re saying we may realize that what we’re saying doesn’t actually make sense. 

Are there things I say, but don’t do? There’s almost a requirement to talk about how we take care of people, which is in fact an important task.  But what our people see (and we may have become blind to) is that our actions don’t match our words.

None of us are the junior leaders that we once were. In most cases that means a positive maturation of how we lead. In some cases it means we’ve rationalized behavior that our younger, more idealistic selves would have frowned upon. I encourage you to have the guts to take a hard look at yourself. Your organization will likely benefit.

LTC Eric Shockley is a career Army logistics officer with a number of assignments in tactical level sustainment units.  He has served as an O/C-T at Fort Polk and as an Advisor in 4th SFAB at Fort Carson, and is currently the Support Operations Officer in the 4th Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade.