Are there business lessons we can learn from Star Wars? It’s hard not to appreciate a film series that started in 1977 and has spawned eight films (with one more to come) and amassed over $5 billion in box office receipts. Although impressive, the more than $30 billion dollars in merchandising alone is what has made the Star Wars franchise arguably the greatest financial success the motion picture industry has ever seen.
As a movie fan and Star Wars enthusiast, I have always contemplated the question: If I had the chance to be on one side of the Force or the other, which would I choose? I would have to say I’m a bit partial to the Dark Side. With this being Star Wars Day (May the 4th Be Wih You) and the upcoming release of Episode IX, I saw this as an opportunity to have a little fun while also providing some business guidance.
The films cover many aspects of politics (senate, partisanship, rebel fighters) as well as business (leadership, power struggle, trade). Thinking of the philosophical differences between the Jedi and the Sith (Dark Side of the Force) and the different methods with which they approach leadership it begs the question: What business lessons can Star Wars teach us about running an organization?
Lack of vision can destroy an organization – Competition and internal sabotage was brewing right under the Jedi’s noses. When they realized that Palpatine was positioning for a takeover and had recruited their hottest young talent it was already too late. One of the critical components of strategic analysis and forecasting is vision. Leaders must possess the ability to spot dangers and navigate through obstacles to ensure the stability and existence of the business.
The Jedi commonly spoke of how their vision or their ability to use the Force to predict the future has been distorted due to the presence of the Dark Side, yet the Sith showed no weakness in their ability to use the Force to their advantage. The inability to anticipate the moves of your competition will have your company in a constant state of catch-up. Companies can be left vulnerable to changing market trends, evolving customer tastes, or government regulations if they are not able to intelligently forecast.
Your greatest weapon can be your biggest weakness – The Empire was in full force and their “ultimate weapon”, the Death Star, was the key to maintaining control. However, a simple design flaw through an exhaust vent led to the fortress’ demise. Industry leaders or monopolistic corporations can operate almost with a sense of invincibility. Their market share and strength allows them to change market prices with little recourse for the consumer. However, those which are not careful can develop blind spots to possible gaping holes in their operations.
In 2000, Blockbuster dominated the video entertainment industry with approximately $5 billion in annual revenue. 16% of that revenue ($800 million) was derived from customer late fees. One year prior, they turned down the opportunity to buy a small start-up who used subscription-based pricing, eliminated late fees, and sent DVDs to customer homes. Blockbuster dismissed them as a niche company. The story goes that it was Blockbuster late fees that led Reed Hastings to create this start-up company we all know as Netflix. 15 years later, Netflix is the leader in video-on-demand entertainment and Blockbuster exists only in the memories of those who remember VCRs and $7 rentals that ballooned to $20 rentals when you didn’t return your rental by noon.
The importance of culture and “fit” when dealing with talent management – The biggest mistake the Jedi made was agreeing to train Anakin Skywalker because he was seen as the “chosen one”, regardless of the fact that he was seen as potentially dangerous and too old to begin training. Adding insult to injury, a relatively new Jedi knight was appointed to oversee his training. Recruiting top talent is not an exact science. At times it can be hard to gauge exactly how well even the brightest individuals will fare in a given environment. Regardless of how talented or how great certain employees are, a hard look must be taken at the potential risks to avoid rifts in the company.
From day one, there was no doubting Anakin’s talent, yet he proved on many occasions his disrespect for authority, insubordination to his direct manager (Obi-Wan), ignoring the wishes of senior leadership (Jedi Council), and also violating company policy (his marriage violated the Jedi code). Professional sports franchises see it every day. At age 37, NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens finished just 17 yards short of 1,000 yards in 2010. However, despite stellar production for a player his age, teams felt that given his history of arguing with teammates and fights with coaches, he was not worth the potential risks to locker room cohesion. Sometimes, the catch just isn’t worth the chase.
Plan the work, work the plan – How did the Emperor build the empire and maintain control for decades (tyranny aside)? Like the head of any organization, he realized that while planning was critical, execution was of the utmost importance. Additionally, when unforeseen obstacles arose such as the trade federation defeat, he navigated around them and proceeded to carry out his agenda. Over time, he consolidated power by eliminating the Galactic Senate and appointed Darth Vadar and Grand Moff Tarkin as his leadership team.
Organizational efficiency can cut down on excessive waste, reduce costs, and streamline operations. Strong leadership who set a certain standard of performance and train their employees well can eliminate needless micromanagement. When advising prospective clients, one of the consistent things that I stress is that executing the strategy is even more important than the strategy itself. Even the best laid plans can have catastrophic results if poorly executed.
“If one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace…a larger view of the Force.” – Chancellor Palpatine