July 21, 2024

[Darth] Vader has many admirable qualities; he did not rise to the level of Sith Lord without ability. He possesses incredible personal will, is a skilled warrior, is not afraid to put himself in harm’s way, and he has a great eye for talent.

We had a great response to our December Whiteboard post so we opted to run a part two.

So we reached out to several more scholars and once again asked them the following question:

Describe a positive or negative leadership role model from a character in fantasy literature, science fiction, or general fiction.

Readers are invited to make their own contributions in the comments section.

1. Patrick Bratton, Halsey Chair of Naval Studies, US Army War College

Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is set in a re-imagined Italian Renaissance world of Machiavellian politics and rival mercenary captains, or condottieri. Kay’s book offers nuanced and unexpected insights into leadership. Though Kay draws upon the ideas of Machiavelli and Castiglione – the need for leaders to have virtù to challenge fortune and to possess a balance of arms and letters – his novel largely problematizes the role of strong leaders.

The premise of a rivalry between the two mercenary captains implies a conventional Game of Thrones style novel. However, Kay uses this rivalry as a backdrop, and the book focuses on ordinary people whose fates are upended by the passing wake of these leaders.  The actions of the captains provide the context in which these regular people make their way in the world.

The novel has some unsettling but valuable insights for an American audience that is typically obsessed with the individual’s ability to impose their will “upon the lifeless mass” of the world. Today we see “disruptors” and “change agents” as paradigmatic models. Kay offers an unwelcome but necessary caution. No matter our planning, intelligence, capabilities, or virtù, fortune and friction will ultimately shape a large part of what leaders are able to do and who those leaders might be. Moreover, the nature of the mercenaries profession, essentially as hired help, also illustrates their limits in deciding their own path. Fate intervenes towards the end of the novel, when the expected final confrontation between the two captains is supposed to occur. Instead, the fictional version of Constantinople falls and the two captains declare a truce in the context of the crisis.

Kay’s focus on characters who would normally be in background, also is instructive. While the actions of the powerful shape the context of the small, the actions of these minor characters can also affect events. Sometimes these are direct consequences. For example, as part of the climax of the novel, the chance action of a subordinate renders the conflict between the mercenary captains moot. Other times, these actions have intriguing second and third order effects. As Kay writes,

So many stories can be told, in and around and braided through the one we are being given. Don’t we all know that stories can be sparks leaping from the bonfire of an offered tale to become their own fire, if they land on the right ground, if kindling is there and a light breeze but not a hard wind?

The recent Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that the plans of individual leaders and organizations can be upended in unexpected ways. This may give opportunities for others. As individuals, the choices we make are largely how we swim in the river of fortune rather than taming the river.

2. Dr. Robert Farley, Patterson School, University of Kentucky

America’s Favorite Fighting Frenchman: Jean Luc Picard

Jean Luc Picard served as Captain of two iterations of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D and NCC-1701-E) for some fifteen years before advancing to the rank of Admiral. He was an exceedingly fine commander, winning multiple decorations and displaying aptitude across the wide range of responsibilities expected of a Starfleet captain. A deeply principled man, he successfully balanced the needs of his crew against the needs of his mission. Although he generally led by producing consensus among his senior officers, he never displayed indecisiveness. Picard is the closest approximation to the ideal of “lawful good” that we have in contemporary fiction. He exemplified a combination of understanding and generosity that never struck his fictional colleagues as pretentious or overbearing, nor viewers as stilted or unrealistic. Tyler Rogoway describes Picard as having “the best and most confident moral compass of any character I have embraced in fiction.” Of all the souls we have encountered in the ongoing voyages of the starship Enterprise, his was the most noble, and the most human.

Picard’s finest achievement may have been his decision to step away. Picard eventually reached flag rank, but he retired soon thereafter in the wake of a failed attempt to rescue refugees from the destruction of Romulus. Picard threatened to resign from Starfleet if the Federation did not approve his plan to organize a rescue mission (planning for the mission had been disrupted by a terrorist attack) for millions of remaining Romulan civilians. To his surprise, his superiors accepted the resignation and cancelled the relief mission.

But had it not been the relief of Romulus, some other event would have produced a contradiction that Picard could not reconcile. Unlike his fictional forerunner, James T. Kirk, Picard appreciated the need for a career to end. Whereas Kirk attempted to persist in a leadership position that he was plainly temperamentally unsuited for, Picard could not resolve the tension between his own ethical commitments and the strategic requirements of the Federation. Remaining within the Admiralty after its decision to put strategic considerations ahead of humanitarian ones would have compromised his ethics and placed him in an untenable position.

To be sure, the ability to reconcile ethical, moral, and professional commitments is a necessary quality in a soldier. Soldiers who do not believe they need to compromise should be treated as inherently suspect. But, having watched Jean Luc Picard make decisions for so many years, it is almost inconceivable that the answer to “What would Picard do?” would be “something wrong.” Picard does eventually return to space (thus, we have Star Trek: Picard), but notably he returns in order to achieve a specific goal, not because he needs to be a Starfleet officer. This kind of reasoning can offer a guide as to how leaders think about when to end their careers, and step away from the profession.

3. Dr. Darren Linvill, Associate Professor of Communication, Clemson University

Darth Vader of the Star Wars universe.

Darth Vader would have been well served studying a little less dark side of the force and little more leadership theory. A well-known, key concept of leadership studies in the past several decades (in this galaxy) is the idea of “transformational leadership.” Transformational leaders motivate others by building with them a common identity and vision for a shared future. Transformational leadership is not about short term goals, but rather values and intrinsic motivation. Transformational leaders lead by example and build a culture that serves the goals of the group. This type of leadership is often best understood in contrast to the concept of transactional leadership. Transactional leaders motivate through rewards and punishments. Transformational leaders inspire, transactional leaders direct.

There is a tendency for some to frame transformational leadership as wholly superior to transactional leadership. In truth, they both have their appropriate time and place and their relative values are situationally dependent. When looking to motivate others to dedicate some portion of their lives and livelihood to a mission greater than themselves, however, it is clear that the use of some transformational leadership has its place. Darth Vader’s strengths as a transactional leader and deficiencies as transformational leader demonstrate the need for balance.

Vader has many admirable qualities; he did not rise to the level of Sith Lord without ability. He possesses incredible personal will, is a skilled warrior, is not afraid to put himself in harm’s way, and he has a great eye for talent. Sadly, however, Vader is a good example of the Peter principle, meaning individuals rise to the level of their own incompetence. The skills needed to excel as a Sith are not the same as those needed to command Imperial forces.

Vader motivates primarily through fear. In Star Wars we routinely see Vader force-choke subordinates who dare question his authority, without even the courtesy of due process. The look of fear Imperial officers have for him is clear; they obey Vader not out of esprit de corps, but rather self-preservation. In The Empire Strikes Back we observe Vader convince Lando Calrissian to turn on Han Solo and his friends through a combination of threats and concessions. Lando turns on Vader the moment the deal is no longer to his advantage. In The Return of the Jedi, Vader attempts to recruit Skywalker to the Dark Side through the promise of power, a concept that does not appeal to the young Jedi in the least. This failed transactional appeal has cataclysmic consequences for Vader and the Empire.

Not once do we see Vader lead in a transformational manner. He never rallies his subordinates through emotional appeals to pride, faithfulness, or shared belief. He never references The Empire’s founding documents or mission and vision statements to which his subordinates adhere. He never clarifies why there may be some intrinsic, common need to crush the rebel alliance. Perhaps if Vader had spent just a little more time clarifying to his imperial forces a common identity and little less time instilling fear it is possible a certain architect would have put just a little extra pride and effort into the design of the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port.

4. Ruth Monnier, Learning Outreach Librarian, Assistant Professor, Pittsburg State University, Kansas

Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

When asked about role models, how many times have you heard people respond “my mother” or “my father” or other relative? Anecdotally, many people look to their families for leadership examples. English novelist Jane Austen provides plenty of fodder for this familial model, delivering consistent commentary on family structure, human nature, and society in her works. And familial and societal relationships can reveal just as much about leadership (or lack thereof) as the grand platforms of war, politics, and statecraft. So, with Austen and the family at the center, it is worth a closer look at the leadership of Mr. Bennet, a central character in Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Bennet’s position as the head of household, father to five daughters, and the Longbourn estate owner provides him with ample opportunities to lead, but the title and duties do not guarantee good leadership. In fact, he demonstrates poor leadership through his lack of preparation, inability to adapt, selfishness, and poor communication. He is not an evil character—simply human, and ultimately, a poor leader.

Mr. Bennet’s lack of preparation and inability to adapt are shown throughout the book with how he manages the estate and his family. He sees only one way to solve a problem, and if that does not work, then he ignores the issue altogether. When faced with the challenge of ensuring his family’s welfare, his solution is to keep Longbourn. He attempts only one way to break the entail on the estate…trying to have a male heir. But this approach fails, and he refuses to adapt. He does not put aside money for his five daughters’ dowries to ensure their welfare after he passes. He does not attempt to educate his daughters with governesses and their “accomplishments,” which could have helped his daughters find suitors or provided the opportunity to be a governess or companion. Instead Mr. Bennet ignores his responsibilities to his family and buries his head in the library.

Mr. Bennet puts his own desires first and takes the path of least resistance. He does not see the value or his responsibility to assist the family, and as a result, he does not communicate with them. He saves his energy for his books and his time for the library. He fails to curtail Mrs. Bennet’s spending, thus failing to save for the future, and does not curb her callous behavior towards his middle daughters and others. Mr. Bennet’s failure is revealed as he is unwilling to correct Lydia’s impulsive nature and overly flirtatious manner, and he allows her to go on the trip to Brighton. Denying these things would have been unpopular, but they would have also been the better courses of action.

Mr. Bennet is stuck in his own world. He is unwilling to regularly participate in life outside his library and thus has has little awareness of household happenings. He does not discourage Mr. Collins from proposing to Elizabeth, even though he knew it would not be accepted. He does not send letters to Longbourn from London while looking for Lydia. He did not refuse Mr. Darcy consent to marry Elizabeth, even though he was unaware of her thoughts. Mr. Bennet places himself first in all things, even when communicating, he seeks his amusement first in teasing others. In following the path of least resistance, Mr. Bennet cannot be bothered to change his habits or grow as an individual because that would take energy away from the books.

Mr. Bennet is not a servant leader or any type of leader, really. He simply has authority based on the system. But what we might learn from Mr. Bennet is the power of the negative example. Leaders need to be prepared, willing to adapt and grow, an active participant in life, and considerate of others. And most importantly for those of us watching and looking for role models—just because they are family does not mean they are a good leader.

The views expressed in this Whiteboard Exercise are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: tookapic (pixabay.com) Considered public domain/Free use

Other releases in the “Whiteboard” series:

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