With Star Wars fever taking over the world due the recent release of ‘The Last Jedi’, and having a husband so immersed in the Star Wars thing that he has taken to asking our 14 month old son to turn to the dark side, the inevitable happened and I ended up watching multiple viewings of ‘The Force Awakens’. On my third or fourth viewing my mind inevitably wandered to HR and I realized something; this movie actually presents a good case study in leadership styles and organization.
It occurred to me I was watching a film which showcased, as one of its central themes, the organizational and social structures of two competing organizations. The First Order, and the Rebels. The First Order has a very strict and regimented organization structure, with hierarchies and each role filled by personnel who know their place. People do the tasks assigned to them simply because of orders, and the threat of consequences should those orders not be correctly carried out. The rebels, by contrast, have a hierarchy and leadership in place, but it has a more “flat” structure. The leaders have an open discussion on a course of action, then, through inspiring confidence and explaining necessity, convince their team to follow them on a course of action.
There are some excellent examples which, by virtue of the art of cinema and the rhetorical device of the logical extreme, demonstrate differing methods of leadership and their possible consequences. So without further ado, let’s jump into our X-Wings, and blow this thing and go home. Spoilers for the movie ‘The Force Awakens’ follow.
Near the start of the film we see an employee of the First Order, Finn, given an order he clearly feels uncomfortable with, the execution of innocent civilians. Finn refuses to comply with the order and tries to conceal his lack of action, but his line manager, Captain Phasma, becomes suspicious. She orders him to hand his blaster in for inspection (his blaster in this case being his work) and to “Report to my division at once”, which is what I assume basically amounts to the HR department in the First Order. Finn, fearing for more than just his job at this point, decides to flee. So from a management perspective, what do we have here, and how could it be avoided? We have an order dictated to the workforce without explanation or context, we have an employee who feels threatened and vulnerable due to his unwillingness or inability to comply with this order, we have his attempt to conceal this from his manager, and ultimately we lose the employee to a rival company.
Given the nature of the First Orders work, the dirty business of murdering civilians was always going to be part of the job. This doesn’t mean it is smart to simply expect the workforce to comply, however. Workers are often given tasks they’re uncomfortable with. But attempting to force compliance through coercion will likely result in the haemorrhaging of staff if they have alternatives. Instead, bonuses and rewards are a better alternative. Had Finn been given a holiday and a company counsellor to talk to, he might still be working in the First Order right now. The First Order should recruit a team of occupational therapists to ensure employee well-being. And if we are talking about recruitment, the First Order really need to work on their recruitment model. To be successful organisations do not just need capable employees but ones that understand and want to be part of the the vision of the organisation.
A little later in the film we see our first example of how the Rebels handle management. The Rebels, tipped off to the location of a robot they’re apparently looking for, show up to rescue it from the clutches of the first order. Poe Dameron and his team come swooping in. Poe addresses his staff with words of encouragement and support; “Go straight at them! Don’t let these thugs scare you!”. A few of his team offer encouragement of their own; “We’re with you, Poe.” Dameron leads from the front, throwing himself confidently into the fray, leading by example and trusting those behind him to do their jobs. He gives every impression not only that he knows what he is doing, but that he will return to help any who might find themselves overwhelmed or in trouble. He does not berate, patronise, or do anything to undermine the self-confidence of those he has behind him.
These examples may seem somewhat fanciful, coming as they do from a space opera featuring swords made of light and furry alien things, but when you work in HR long enough you encounter multiple different styles of leadership as well as managers with surprising degrees of hairiness. These examples, contrasting as much as they do, provide a very good view of the opposite ends of the leadership spectrum. It’s rare that you’ll encounter a manager of either extreme though, most have aspects of each. Everyone has their own particular way of doing things, based upon their character, experience, and knowledge. It is important to note, however, that coaching managers – one of the most vital skills necessary for a senior HR professional – is about teaching effective leadership. It is about getting leaders to drop bad practices and realize the most effective ways to get the best out of their people. It’s also about helping them see that there can be no one size fits all to leadership and they need to adapt and adjust their style depending on situation.
The movie rumbles on towards its climax, and the stakes are raised. Our heroes are threatened with imminent doom, our villains have a dangerous prisoner on the loose in their base, who also happens to have a map they need. Both situations are somewhat urgent and time sensitive, and so we get a glimpse of how each organization operates under pressure. In times of pressure, sometimes a direct approach is needed. Crisis management is called for. An emergency has struck and decisions need to be made and implemented immediately.
The First Order’s response is to ratchet up the pressure on the workforce, and we can see the toxic effect this has. In high stress situations a leader needs to have the respect of and trust of his team, indecision or dithering can be ruinous to whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish. However, while some leaders thrive on a dynamic, demanding, and on the hoof method of leadership, it tends to be detrimental to team cohesion if they’re subjected to it too often, as it lacks any form of feedback or collaboration with the employees, and they inevitably feel that they have no autonomy, which can have a paralysing effect on them if they find they have to make decisions on their own. This style is rendered even more destructive to employee engagement if it is combined with a culture of fear with employees feeling constantly threatened by repercussions, as it is in the First Order. I very much doubt the First Order will get the best out of their people in the long term.
As the film lurches from one crisis to another the differences in leadership become ever more apparent. When things don’t go right for Kylo Ren he becomes angry and destroys his office with what appears to be a giant glow stick. We see two of his team avoid going near him for fear of facing his wrath themselves. When the First Order leadership team meet they are quick to point the finger at each other for mistakes. Nobody takes accountability for their own actions, and there is definitely no collaboration on how to improve their situation. So, applying this to our real world of work, we see the angry boss, who is quick to blame others, who creates a hostile atmosphere, and for whom very few will give their utmost efforts. Fewer still would want to work for such a leader. There is a saying in the HR tribe – people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. How can an employee, struggling under an atmosphere of oppressive criticism and job insecurity, make suggestions for improvements or participate when they never know how a volatile team leader will react?
Once again, the movie gives us a good counter example. Towards the end of this movie, the Rebels have discovered that the system they are inhabiting is the next target of the First Orders giant doom cannon thing. In response they convene a senior leadership meeting and plan the way forward, taking advice and input from any who might have useful information, regardless of rank or prestige. People can offer ideas and suggestions without fear. In fact it is the information provided by a newcomer of no real standing with the Rebels, and who left his previous job on Starkiller Base due to issues with the management, which was instrumental in the overall success of the project.
It’s also important to note that, among the Rebels, everyone is on the same side working towards the same goal, whereas among the First Order everyone is working for themselves, for a goal only they could elaborate on. Whilst there is a school of thought which suggests that employees who compete directly with their co-workers will bring out the best in each other, I’m more inclined to believe that cooperation and team spirit yield more productive results. The conclusion of the movie seems to bear this out, as the First Orders precious base is blown to smithereens.
So where does this leave us? Firstly, sorry for any spoilers if you’ve not watched this movie yet, but it’s been out two years. Secondly, to paraphrase Poe Dameron, don’t let the bosses scare you. If you see bad leadership practices, call them out. It will enhance the productivity of your workforce, reduce staff stress, and might just save the galaxy from the First Order.