Winning Was Easy: The Tragedy of Star Wars

Winning was easy young man. Governing’s harder.

                                                 — President George Washington (Hamilton)


When I’ve done jujitsu demos, we would often conduct “what if” scenarios: given a situation, how would one of the demonstrators use jujitsu to get out of it? Some of the situations members of the audience would imagine were, to say the least, creative: “You’re on your face, with your arms and legs twisted into knots and …”

The response to such scenarios was always, “How did you get there in the first place?”

Watching The Last Jedi, I had a similar reaction: “How did they manage to get into that mess in the first place?”

For those who haven’t figured it out from some of my other articles, I am something of a Star Wars fan. As I watched The Last Jedi, I couldn’t help but think of it in an organizational psych context. How did the galaxy get from the fall of the Empire and potential rebirth of the Republic at the end of Return of the Jedi, to the First Order and the collapse of the rebellion that we saw in Force Awakens and Last Jedi?

More simply, how did the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke (or is it Snookie?) take power and establish the sort of industrial base necessary to build massive dreadnaughts and the Starkiller Base? One thing we can say with some certainty is that “Supreme Leaders” don’t just waltz in and take power when things are going well. However, when government is (at least perceived to be) not functioning and political and economic conditions are chaotic, Supreme Leaders tend to find much more fertile ground for their promises of order: humans (and aliens, but since Star Wars aliens are functionally human, we’ll treat them all as human) hate organizational ambiguity. Just think about how unpleasant it can be when you don’t know what’s expected of you on the job or how you’re going to get your job done, then multiple that by a few powers of 10.

This suggests that after Emperor Palpatine got shafted at the end of Return of the Jedi (remember, he was dropped down a shaft), the nascent Republic was unable to re-establish a functional government. Without a functional galactic government, when the remnants of the Empire returned as the First Order with Snoke at the helm, they would have found ineffective military resistance and a galaxy open to their message of order.

This is a little surprising: Palpatine had only been in power for roughly 25 years. The Galactic Senate had only recently been disbanded (during Episode IV). The mechanisms of government, as well as the actual people, should still have been in place. Sure, 25 years seems like a long time, but a galaxy is a very big place and cultures containing trillions or quadrillions of people do not change quickly. So again, how did we get there?

At this point we need to go to a very scary place: the prequel trilogies. I realize this may be painful for some, so I’ll try to keep it brief.

What we see in the prequel movies is that in addition to his dark powers, Palpatine is also a consummate politician. Most, if not all, of his manipulations were done using words and political acumen. The Force almost never came into it. In fact, Palpatine’s manipulation of the Galactic Senate, the Trade Federation, and the political system are no different from what plenty of less than scrupulous organizational leaders have done without any magical powers at all. Even Palpatine’s seduction of Anakin Skywalker was done purely through words and a deep understanding of practical psychology. Once Palpatine took control, he did not use the Force to govern; rather, he used the existing mechanisms of governance.

That’s the thing about organizations: no matter the size, they need social mechanisms to keep them functioning. Small groups can work informally with a loose decision-making process. Very large organizations, up to and including Galactic Empires, need a formal structure complete with functionaries and deliberative bodies that can carry out the instructions from the top. Even Palpatine, for all his power, could not rule a galaxy without that structure. The galaxy is just too big and there’s just not enough time for one person to pay attention to all the details. Organizations much smaller than the Empire run into that problem: Tom Watson Sr. maintained a very flat organizational structure at IBM; his son, Tom Watson Jr., instituted a management structure because otherwise the company would have become ungovernable as it grew. Once Palpatine dissolved the Senate, he replaced it with Moffs and Grand Moffs; essentially, middle managers. Even Sith Lords need lieutenants to carry out their orders, at least if they want to have time to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. More to the point, Palpatine recognized that running a galaxy requires a large bureaucracy and that transitioning from the existing mechanisms of the Republic to those of Empire took time. That sort of transition is necessary when implementing a dramatic cultural change.

Palpatine’s organizational changes provoked outcry and rebellion across the galaxy. To be fair, his changes involved altering the existing culture at a profound level, so resistance was to be expected. This is hardly surprising to anyone who has ever attempted even a more benign organizational change, although most fights over that changes do not include duels, battle cruisers, and Death Stars. However, those fights can still be extremely bitter and exhausting for all concerned, for all their lack of special effects.

The original trilogy, episodes IV-VI, told the story of that rebellion against Palpatine’s organizational change. However, the story did not focus on matters of governance or organizational behavior, but on using the Force to defeat Palpatine and Darth Vader. That the Force was the focus is hardly surprising: aside from the fact that lightsaber duels and telekinesis are more exciting that “Organizational Psychology: The Movie,” Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are Jedi. They view the world through the lens of the Force. For Yoda and Obi-Wan, the goal was to train another Jedi capable of defeating the two Sith. Actual governance of the galaxy wasn’t really their primary focus. Like anyone who has a specific background or expertise, there is a tendency to view problems through the lens of that expertise (this article being no exception 😊). This tendency can cause problems when it blinds us to other, equally important, components of the situation, like who would run the galaxy once Palpatine was let go.

The answer, apparently, was no one. We might suspect, as one economist pointed out, that the construction, and subsequent destruction, of two Death Stars was enough to bankrupt the government and trigger a galactic depression. It may be that the recently disbanded Senate was unable to come together and pass legislation, and Palpatine’s governors were not inclined to cooperate. It may be something else. What we do know is that after another approximately 25 years, Luke Skywalker has given in to despair, the Republic is down to so few planets that they can be functionally destroyed by the Starkiller Base, the First Order has control of enough of the galaxy’s industrial base that they can build the Starkiller Base, and the remnants of the Resistance have no resources and no allies. Whatever the message of the Resistance was, it clearly hasn’t been convincing anyone other than the true believers. Similarly, in any organization, it’s important to seek out information from outside the group and find out how your message is being received.

Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master, the man who defeated Darth Vader and the Emperor, could not recreate the Republic. Leia Organa, princess and general, was apparently also unable to do so. The new government that did eventually emerge was headed by Snoke and his disciple, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. With Snoke’s death, the galactic government is now in the hands of a man with no impulse control and a tendency to throw temper tantrums and engage in the gratuitous use of Force. On the other side, Rey is at least Ren’s equal in the Force. Given Ren’s inability to control himself and Rey’s incredible self-discipline, she’s potentially far more capable than he is. And yet, neither one of them has the training to run a galaxy. Some things require expertise that comes from years of education and practice on top of raw talent. Just trusting your feelings isn’t going to cut it.

Organizations need to think about their needs both in the immediate term and in the future. Thinking about expected changes can help the organization predict what skills it will need. When Palpatine took charge, he knew exactly what to do and had the people in place to do it. Even so, it took him 25 years to mostly complete his personnel changes. The Rebellion was not so well organized, and paid the price. If you wait until the moment you need the skills to start developing them, it’ll be too late. This last point is true not just at an organizational level, but at an individual one as well.

The tragedy of Star Wars is that Our Heroes have spent their time focusing on the Force, as though the Force is what governs the galaxy. Like duct tape, the Force might hold the universe together, but it’s about as good at the actual mechanisms of governance as a roll of duct tape. As with any organization, to be successful the Rebellion needs to identify and develop its core competencies, which includes learning how to govern should they win. Otherwise, the cycle will just repeat. They can only get so far relying on Force.

Comments (2)

George Klemic SrJanuary 15th, 2018 at 6:42 pm

Good analysis! I observe that neither side seems to have a vision that is shared and bought-into by the common people. Similarly, a transactional approach seems to dominate one side; and the seemingly more powerful transformational approach is only used on the “chosen” until this most recent episode.

steveFebruary 14th, 2018 at 10:06 pm

That’s a very good point. Not only doesn’t it seem like there’s no over-arching vision on either side, the little bit of the galaxy we do see appears to be completely oblivious to the entire conflict.

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