Three reasons why Darth Vader is a bad team leader

Three reasons why Darth Vader is a bad team leader
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Darth Vader was a lot of things to a lot of people: Dark Lord of the Sith, distant father, caring husband (for a little bit, at least), the only member of the Jedi Council not granted the rank of master, Emperor Palpatine’s right-hand man. But one aspect of him is oftentimes overlooked: how bad a team leader he was. Let’s go over three reasons why he was bad, and how you can avoid his mistakes—besides the whole turning-to-the-Dark-Side debacle.

Please note that I am paraphrasing and that I’m taking a lot of nuance out of situations and character motivation. No one is more of a stickler about Star Wars than I am!

Frequently changing acceptance criteria



In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader strikes a deal with Lando Calrissian. The terms are pretty simple: Lando betrays his old friend Han Solo, and in turn the Empire would leave the semi-legal mining operation that Lando was running alone. The deal can be (overly) simplified into a Gherkin story like this: 


AS Lando,

WHEN I help the Empire capture Han Solo

SO They can lure Luke Skywalker into a trap

THEN the Empire will leave Cloud City in peace


Lando, to his credit, completes his end of the bargain in a quick and timely manner. However, Darth Vader—the one in charge of this workstream—changes the deal to something more like this:


AS Lando,

WHEN I help the Empire capture Han Solo

AND I help the Empire capture Luke Skywalker

AND I turn Han over to Boba Fett

THEN the Empire will leave Cloud City in peace


These requirements are getting out of hand!



No wonder Lando left the team shortly thereafter and joined the Rebel Alliance. 


As a team leader, it is important to keep your stories’ requirements consistent. Moving the goalposts while the work is underway undermines the team’s work and breaks down confidence that they are accomplishing their goals. They shouldn’t have to worry about not working on the right thing or pray that you don’t alter the work further. 


Praise in public, criticize in private


Probably Vader’s most egregious offense is how he delivers constructive feedback to his team.  At best, it is the silent treatment (for example, towards Admiral Piett for allowing the Falcon to escape from Cloud City), and at worst, it’s death (for both Admiral Ozzel and Captain Needa). All of these feedback sessions were delivered in full view of Vader’s team. 


According to Radical Candor, criticism should be delivered in a private setting, because it is less likely to trigger a fight-or-flight response. It also shows the other person that you care about them enough to meet away from the team and give them privacy when discussing a growth area.


On the other hand, praise should be given in public. Again taking from Radical Candor, public praise is more effective and meaningful because “it helps the whole team learn something new. Make sure to provide details about what the person did, the impact, and the context.” 


Vader fails in this, since the closest he ever comes to praising a teammate is when he says, “Good work, Commander” in Return of the Jedi. After delivering the bare minimum to count as positive feedback, he moves quickly onwards and gives further orders. The only people around to hear the affirmation are two Stormtroopers and Luke Skywalker. 



How can the Dark Lord expect this commander to grow if the positive feedback isn’t specific? How can the team learn, if they aren’t given context on how they, too, can do “good work”? Perhaps the commander in this example could use the Reverse ASK Framework, but Vader isn’t making it easy.


As a team leader, it is important to help your team continually improve by providing well-crafted feedback, delivered in an appropriate setting—specific praise in public, and criticism in a private, safe space. To be fair, the bridge of a Star Destroyer is not a safe environment for either type of feedback. 


Inappropriate delegation of responsibility


When you are leading a team, it is important to know your team members’ strengths, and to rely on your team members to do their jobs. Vader, however, jumps into the literal trenches and assumes control of the main track of work. 



During the Battle of Yavin in A New Hope, the Empire’s goal was clear: destroy the Rebel fighters before they destroy the Death Star. To this end, Darth Vader embarks in his own fighter along with his two best pilots. But instead of using their skill sets, he tells them, “I’ll take them myself. Cover me.” This puts his ace pilots in the uncomfortable position of having to stand aside and play a supporting role while their boss does their job.


To his credit, the Dark Lord is a good pilot and does succeed in clearing up the backlog, aka Red Squadron. And this is often the case when an expert hops in and does the work: the team sees short-term successes. But this selfish approach causes long-term issues—primarily, a single point of failure. 


This is exemplified when Darth Vader moves on to tackle the highest priority feature: the destruction of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing. Even when working on such a key objective, he tells his team that “I’ll handle the leader.” What even is the point of having a team, if he is going to take all the work? 


Well, we all know how it ends: 



Trusting members of your team can be hard, especially when you are an expert in a crucial area. It can be tempting to step in and take a hands-on approach, and this is where delegation and trust come in. Without giving your team the ability to implement important features and tackle challenging problems, how can they be expected to improve? You might see short-term gains, but the team needs these opportunities to learn and grow, which will lead to future successes. 



While not only being the Dark Lord and oppressing most of the Galaxy, Darth Vader was also an ineffective team leader. He failed in three main areas: having constantly shifting requirements, giving constructive feedback in public, and taking on work that should have been left to his team. By doing the opposite of what he did in pretty much every regard, you can avoid these pitfalls and help lead your team to victories, galactic and otherwise.

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Aaron Foster Breilyn (afb)

Aaron Foster Breilyn (afb)

Principal Software Engineer

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