As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, I found it exciting when the third trailer for the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens was released. Part of the appeal of the Star Wars saga is that it is the classic hero’s journey. But there’s a lot more. Having worked with leaders in over 25 different industries, I can tell you with certainty, that if you pay close attention, there are some incredibly powerful instructions for how to successfully lead. Here are seven, in honor of the forthcoming episode in the saga.
1. Let go of attachments. In Star Wars, the Jedi refer to this principle as it relates to people so that they are solely focused on serving. But we all need to let go of attachments to outcomes. This has nothing to do with doing everything within your ability to reach goals or achieve objectives. Always strive for the outcome, of course. But you can’t control outcomes, so the key is to maintain your focus on the actions that get you there. When we get too attached to outcomes you see poor decisions, choking at important moments, and at worst counterproductive or even dishonest behaviors.
2. Always in motion the future is. You can tell by the syntax that Yoda spoke these words (If I have to explain who Yoda is at this point, more work have you to do.) When executives formulate strategy and create plans, its important to recognize that you are always acting on incomplete information. What’s more is that its unlikely you know how much incomplete information you have! Leaders have to make rational decisions based on their knowledge and experience. I’m not saying that information isn’t important, but I see it frequently used to stall. Mostly driven by fear of making a wrong decision. More on fear in a moment.
3. Calm is powerful. The senior-most Jedi are often found meditating. Because it helps them maintain focus. Think about how it feels when you are around a leader who is anxious, frenetic, or whirling around “crazy busy”. Does it inspire a lot of confidence? In my experience analyzing the data on what nearly 200,000 direct reports said about their bosses, the answer is unequivocally no. In fact, many times it makes a person look like they can’t handle the job. Don’t mistake calm for a tranquil or even lethargic state. Rather, it’s about focused attention, centeredness, and upbeat energy to inspire confidence.
4. The most powerful devote time to honing their skills. This goes for the dark side of the force and the light. I’m hoping you are on the light side. Regardless, you don’t wield telekinetic powers to move space ships without a lot of practice. This includes being proactive in continually developing new skills. But it is also about practice. I’ve seen too many people attend a training program and fail to practice any of what was learned afterward. In the same way you can’t become a proficient golfer in a day or two, the interactive skills required of excellent leaders require practice. Practicing difficult or important conversations before having them and practicing strategic messages for maximum impact. Whatever you are developing for growth, your deliberate practice is significantly more valuable than the famed 10,000-hour rule. Prioritizing the intentional development of skills is how the best practice—constantly, to meet the intense requirements of the job.
5. Fear is the path to the dark side. We don’t talk about fear a lot in business but I sure do hear a lot of it. The way it is popularly talked about—sometimes in a humble-bragging way is with stress. But stress is most often being afraid that something will or won’t happen. None of us can completely escape fear, so complete avoidance isn’t realistic. Its vital to be attentive to those fears and make sure that they don’t completely control your actions. An overdose of fear or stress is the root cause of many poor decisions. Don’t let it control your destiny.
6. Listen to your novices and frontlines. In a favorite moment of mine, a Jedi Master asks a group of children just starting to learn about the force to help solve a conundrum. One of the children quickly resolves the mystery, prompting the recognition that “wonderful is the mind of a child”. That’s because they are unfettered in their thinking and able to see things others don’t. Leaders ought to prioritize spending time with the front lines of the organization as well as new employees. They are the best source for simple, logical, and rational ideas to address issues. Front line personnel are also a tremendous source of innovation.
7. Do or do not there is no try. This phrase is a favorite of even non Star Wars fans (its amazing to me that such people exist), and needs little explanation. Commitment and driving for results, high engagement, and the willingness to give our best effort, are hallmarks of not just great leaders, but of great people.
Of course, there are more lessons in the Star Wars saga, but these are the ones I find most prevalent and useful in my work with executives. And with Episode VII on the horizon, there will clearly be more for all of us to learn.