Four Reasons Yoda Failed as a CEO

If you work in or near the technology sector, you'll inevitably have had someone at some point exclaim "Do or do not, there is no try!" when discussing the feasibility of a difficult project. In popular culture, we've grown used to the notion that Yoda was a wise and powerful leader. But just how good was he? (yes, I know he wasn't real, but go with me on this!). Was the little green guy a good CEO and should we try to emulate his approach?

The short answers are No and No. You'd think that being over 800 years old, Yoda would have picked up a few ideas about leadership along the way to becoming CEO of Jedi Inc. But apparently he did not. As a senior leader, Yoda consistently made fundamental leadership errors, resulting in the eventual collapse of his organisation. Had he not decided to resign and go into hiding, he would certainly have had a pretty rough time at his next board meeting. Let's look at four of those mistakes to see if we can learn how to avoid them, as our own careers progress.

1. Issuing bland soundbites instead of actionable guidance

As a CEO or senior leader, what you say carries considerable impact. Are your words a consistent, guiding and characterful illustration of the company's desired culture and approach? If so then you are focussing and amplifying the whole organisation's performance through what you say.

But what if your pronouncements are obscure, characterless or generic? They'll frustrate or confuse people and slow the business down. They won't guide your team to good decisions about what to start, what to continue and what to stop doing.

So how did Yoda fare here? Let's examine the advice he gave to a young intern, at the end of his three month probation period, who was in an alarming hurry to be fast-tracked through the organisation.

After telling young Anakin that he detects much fear within, Yoda tells him: "Fear leads to Anger. Anger leads to Hate. Hate leads to Suffering!” Was that advice helpful and did the young intern develop into a role-model leader, as a result? Well, let's see how he's getting on a few years down the line:

Hmm, not so well. It's not surprising, really. By his advice, Yoda is trying to jolt Anakin out of being fearful by describing some dire consequences if his current state of mind persists. This isn't likely to work, firstly because the consequences that he describes are unconvincing, perplexing even. Fear doesn't necessarily lead to Anger, nor Anger to Hate. Yoda could just as easily have said: "Anger leads to Fear, Fear leads to Suffering and Suffering leads to Hate!" or "Suffering leads to Fear, Fear leads to Hate and Hate leads to Anger!" They are each no more meaningless, arbitrary or inconsequential than his attempt.

Lazy generalities like these are not an effective impetus for people to change. And just telling someone to "stop being afraid (or there'll be consequences for your career)" is unhelpful. It's like being told to be more confident. People don't choose to be fearful or under-confident and they can't simply switch these feelings off just because the career consequences of them are pointed out. You need to provide at least some guidance as to how to overcome limiting feelings like these. And, if you want someone to develop, you need to be more thoughtful and specific in your advice. You manage a team one person at a time. This takes considerable effort.

Because Yoda's lacklustre words conveyed no value and contained no actionable guidance, they only frustrated the intern, so much so that he eventually opted to leave the company and enslave the entire galaxy.

2. Lacking in cognitive empathy, especially during one-to-one meetings

Picture the scene: you go to see the CEO for a rare one-to-one meeting. You are, by common consent, one of the most talented and key people in the organisation, but lately you've had a lot on your mind. You're losing faith in the values of the organisation that you were once excited to join. Your relationship with your direct manager is strained. You are considering leaving the company, maybe even joining a rival. On top of that, at home you're worried that your wife will have serious complications in childbirth. In fact, you're so stressed by the whole situation that you look this bad during the meeting:

But Yoda, in his one-to-one with Anakin, just doesn't pick up on how he looks and sounds (perhaps switching on the lights would have helped). He completely misses that this extremely talented but immature young team member is in great distress and needs personal help and support right now. Instead Yoda just issues another generic, cold soundbite - "Attachment leads to Jealousy!" - and sends him on his way. Yoda makes it fairly clear that he's too busy with his own concerns to properly intervene. He has a schedule to keep.

So, did that work?

No. Anakin eventually slaughters all the "younglings". Oh well.

3. Becoming isolated from what's really happening in the organisation

It's very easy for senior people to become disconnected from changing internal sentiment or from external market transitions. For example, what if they spend almost all of their time in the main conference room, largely only meeting with other senior execs:

And what if a core threat to the business begins to emerge which requires focussed analysis and attention, but the execs' calendars are already full up with comforting "routine exec activity"? Like, for example, general business trips for purposes other than dealing with the core issue that's emerging.

Perhaps that sounds unlikely, but executive detachment, wilful blindness to existential threat, ego-boosting distractions and reality avoidance are all common coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress of senior roles. These frequently manifest through the twin conceits of "I'm in the air so I'm working " and "I'm busy so I'm being effective".

How did Yoda score here? Let's put ourselves in his place and see...

Someone has built an enormous Clone Army. You don't know who created it or why. In fact, you only by chance found out about its existence. But now you're forced to rely on that army because you hadn't prepared any other means of resourcing your company's strategy. (As an aside, that was really dumb).

Meanwhile, the Chancellor - whom your second-in-command senses is "surrounded by darkness" - wants full control of this army (which he seems to know a lot about) and is also pushing for sweeping executive powers at the Senate. Not to mention that he's personally mentoring your highly-disgruntled, rockstar employee, to his obvious detriment.

You also suspect that there's an evil Sith Lord trying to undermine your organisation and, come to think of it, something is blocking you from using the force to read the Chancellor's thoughts...

Doesn't any of that seem concerning to you, as the CEO? Any connections possible between all these happenings that you should perhaps explore as a matter of urgency? What should you do? Only the paranoid survive, they say. So why not confront the Chancellor?

And while you're at it, shouldn't you strenuously argue for the maintenance of democracy at the Senate, and rigorously investigate this whole Clone Army thing?

Answer: No. Instead you decide to go on an extended business trip to see the Wookies because "good relations with them, you have." And, after all, when you're flying you're working, right? And when you get there, you basically watch the Wookies having the battle that they were going to have anyway, with or without you.

So how did that decision turn out?

Not well. While you were away, almost all of the Jedi were murdered (yes, even those younglings), your star employee joined Dark Side Inc. and your company HQ was burned down. And, because you never spent time with those Senators, their evil new boss (the Chancellor - who saw that coming??) easily convinced them that this was all your fault.

4. Undervaluing investment in continuous learning

There's nothing more important to the long-term health of a company than continuous investment in leadership and skills development, combined with strong signalling from senior people that on-going learning is highly valued within the organisation. Over time, this produces a continuous pipeline of leaders at every level, ready to step up as the business expands or people move on.

Yoda talked about training a lot. But, truth be told, he just wasn't into it. Even though Anakin is potentially the most powerful Jedi ever AND is filled with darkness, Yoda can't be bothered training the boy himself. He casually assigns that task to Obi-Wan who, at this point in his career, has had no training experience and therefore makes a real hash of it, as this scene from Anakin's performance review reveals:

Even years later, when Luke comes all the way to Dagobah to find him, Yoda tries every excuse not to train him. He first tells Luke that he has too much anger in him then, vaguely, that he's "not ready" then that he is too impatient and, when none of that sticks, that he's "too old to begin the training."

Contrast this with The Empire, which combines fast-track promotion with active and immediate performance feedback:

In summary, remember that it's not just ineptly screen-written green dwarves rendered in self-congratulatory but poor CGI that make these kinds of leadership errors. Make them too, we do. And consequences, they have. And consequences lead to suffering!... (Ok, Ok, I'll stop...)