By: Kasey Lee
After the release of 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there was no shortage of criticism around what some viewed as an assault on a beloved franchise: a Star Wars movie with women and minorities in title roles while exalted hero Luke Skywalker had been turned impotent and despondent since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. According to VanDerWerff (2017), at least some of the negative reaction came in the form of “tweets and user reviews and responses that focus on the idea that the film’s strongest characters are almost all women, who usually know the right thing to do, while its most evil characters are white men with complexes about being given what they think they deserve” (para. 18). This reaction should not be surprising to any scholar of leadership; it reflects decades of empirical research on the subject. Women who “are competent in positions of authority” face backlash and pay great social costs for their desire to lead (Simon & Hoyt, 2019, p. 409). Yet The Last Jedi is also critically acclaimed and beloved by movie-goers, having had the fourth-highest grossing opening weekend of all time and is currently ranked eighth in all-time domestic box office sales (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017),” 2019). Clearly, there is an audience for progressive, female-centered storytelling that offers a new sort of leadership. While seemingly just another sequel in a space opera that has spanned over 40 years, Star Wars: The Last Jedi reflects recent shifts in leadership theory; it makes a powerful argument for female-led transformational leadership by demonstrating its efficacy, even in the face of sexism, to transform followers, all while revealing the failures of outdated laissez-faire and transactional approaches.
In order to understand the argument for transformational leadership that The Last Jedi presents to its viewers, one must understand the paradigm-shifting approach that is transformational leadership. The name itself hints at the power of the approach: followers are transformed by their experience under a transformational leader. Burns (2003) puts forth a powerful call for transformational leadership as a “moral undertaking,” one that:
respond[s] to the billions of the world’s people in the direst want, people whose pursuit of happiness might begin with a little food or medicine, a pair of shoes, a school within walking distance. They might seek some respect and dignity, some understanding of the interlocking burdens and frustrations of poverty as they, the poor, understand them. They might become followers of those who hear their wants and whose responsive leadership in turn empowers them. (pp. 2-3).
If transformational leadership requires the lifting of the downtrodden and the empowering of the weak, the leadership of The Last Jedi’s First Order will never be transformational, let alone moral. The First Order, the military dictatorship that has destroyed the New Republic and claimed rule over the galaxy, cares little for the needs of the people. In the previous film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the First Order used a planet-sized weapon, Starkiller Base, to destroy entire planets simply as a show of strength (Kennedy, Abrams, Burk, & Abrams, 2015). This act is hardly a sign of responsive, empowering leadership. The entire premise of The Last Jedi is the wholesale destruction of the last remaining defenders of republican government, known as the Resistance, by the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke and his dueling protégés: Kylo Ren, a Force user and grandson of Darth Vader, and General Armitage Hux, a sniveling but ruthless commander (Kennedy, Bergman, & Johnson, 2017). These are no moral, transformational leaders. In Transforming Leadership, Burns (2003) asks if a new, peaceful army can be formed “to fight and win a worldwide war against desperation” (p. 3). If it can, it will not happen from the ranks of the First Order.
The hope for the galaxy, then, rests with the remaining Resistance fighters, who might assemble that peaceful army through transformational leadership. Building on Burns’s groundbreaking theory, Bass (1985, 1998) delineated an operationalized definition of transformational leadership that included five factors: idealized influence in attributes, idealized influence in behavior, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (as cited in Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & van Engen, 2003). Not only is this leadership approach more effective than traditional transactional or laissez-faire approaches, it is employed more often by female leaders than male leaders (Vinkenburg, van Engen, Eagly, & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2011). This trend is clearly expressed in The Last Jedi. The film depicts the Resistance, unlike the predominantly white and male First Order, as a diverse group of individuals from all over the galaxy, including humans of all ethnicities, other sentient species, and droids, working together under a female leadership team (Kennedy et al., 2017). They are led by General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, who both act as leadership foils to Snoke, Kylo Ren, and Hux of the First Order. At every turn, these women of the Resistance embrace the five factors of transformational leadership, demonstrate both sensitivity and strength, and lead effectively to the end.
General Organa and Vice Admiral Holdo readily exhibit the factors of transformational leadership throughout The Last Jedi. The first, idealized influence in attributes, involves “establishing oneself as a role model by gaining the trust and confidence of the followers” (Eagly et al., 2003, p. 570). Leia, as former Princess and Senator from Alderaan, has demonstrated consistent leadership over the course of her life and is well-respected throughout the galaxy. In The Force Awakens, when X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron refers to her as the general in a conversation with a rebel on Jakku, the man responds, “Oh, the General? To me, she’s royalty” (Kennedy et al., 2015). Leia’s status as lifelong leader and role model has been sealed long before the events of The Last Jedi. Likewise, Vice Admiral Holdo elicits respect from her storied military career. Upon Holdo’s introduction to the remaining Resistance members aboard the Star Cruiser Raddus, Poe comments to a fellow X-wing pilot, “That’s Admiral Holdo? Battle of Chyron Belt, Admiral Holdo?” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Holdo’s esteemed reputation as a Resistance hero precedes her. Both women, from lives led in honorable service to others, draw admiration and respect from their followers, the first step in transformational leadership.
The Resistance leaders also exhibit idealized influence in their behaviors. Eagly et al. (2003) describe such leaders as those who clearly state the goals of the organization, communicate the values and purpose of the group, and focus on the mission. After an attack on the Raddus leaves Leia semi-conscious in the ship’s infirmary, the chain of command falls to Vice Admiral Holdo. The team’s numbers are dwindling, as is its fleet, and the Resistance is shaken. Holdo takes the opportunity to speak to the Resistance team, communicating the goals and values of their group:
Four hundred of us on three ships. We’re the very last of the Resistance. But we’re not alone. In every corner of the galaxy, the downtrodden and the oppressed know our symbol. And they put their hope in it. We are the spark that will light the fire that will restore the Republic. That spark, this Resistance, must survive. That is our mission. Now, to your stations. And may the Force be with us. (Kennedy et al., 2017).
This speech lays out the values of the Resistance, which echo Burns’ (2003) values of moral leadership. Holdo then clearly delineates the mission of the Resistance: to survive in order to act as the catalyst for the return of the old government. It is no easy task; the vast First Order military is on their tail with firepower far exceeding a few cruiser cannons and a handful of X-wings. Thus, it is fitting that she ends her speech with a call to the higher power of the Force. Vice Admiral Holdo’s idealized influence offers steady guidance when it is most needed, transforming her followers.
The third factor of transformational leadership is inspirational motivation, which Eagly et al. (2003) describe as optimism and excitement for the future. In The Last Jedi, the Resistance is in a situation where there is little optimism to be found. Still, Admiral Holdo channels Leia in her response to a panicked Poe Dameron: “When I served under Leia, she would say, hope is like the sun: if you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night” (Kennedy et al., 2017). As she states the final line, Poe recites it with her. He has heard this line before, presumably from General Organa herself. Once Leia is conscious, healing, and back with her team, she continues to offer inspirational motivation. Near the end of the film, Resistance Jedi-in-training Rey holds Luke Skywalker’s broken lightsaber in her hands and turns to Leia: “How do we build a rebellion from this?” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Without hesitation, Leia calls on her skills of inspirational motivation, replying, “We have everything we need” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Throughout The Last Jedi, even with appalling odds, the women leaders of the Resistance inspire their team to hope.
These women also embrace intellectual stimulation, taking new perspectives for problem solving and innovating, the fourth factor of transformational leadership (Eagly et al., 2003). Certainly, Admiral Holdo has no choice but to problem solve, as the Resistance is quickly running out of fuel, and the First Order has discovered a technology to track ships through hyperspace. In the moments after the Resistance has jumped to light speed to escape, the First Order appears again with all their munitions in tow. Poe wants to “jump in an X-wing and blow something up,” but the women know this will only end in death for the remaining Resistance (Kennedy et al., 2017). The Republic cannot be rebuilt if the entire Resistance dies, no matter how valiantly, in battle. Instead, Admiral Holdo tells Poe to follow her orders, which are actually a secret maneuver to distract the First Order while smaller transport ships leave with the Resistance to land at an old Rebel base. Without Holdo’s clever thinking, the Resistance would have been wiped out in a single, lop-sided fight. Her intellect and innovation are the reason the Resistance survives.
In a display of their greatest transformational skill, General Leia Organa and Admiral Holdo practice individualized consideration, or follower development, throughout the course of The Last Jedi. According to Eagly et al. (2003), “By mentoring and empowering their followers, transformational leaders encourage them to develop their full potential and thereby to contribute more capably to their organization” (pp. 570-571). Throughout much of the film, the viewer is presented with the point of view of Poe Dameron, fighter pilot and commander under General Leia Organa. The viewer, like Poe, is transformed by the personal and professional development she provides. In an early battle with a First Order dreadnought, Poe directly disobeys Leia’s orders to stand down, leading to the deaths of many Resistance fighters. When he returns to the cruiser after the battle, Leia immediately demotes him to captain. Poe retorts, “We took down a dreadnought!” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Here, General Leia could dismiss him, but she chooses instead to teach him: “At what cost? …There are things that you cannot solve by jumping into your X-wing and blowing something up! I need you to learn that” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Poe responds that there were heroes on the mission, but Leia knows a good leader cannot send fighters to their deaths in the name of heroics. “Dead heroes. No leaders,” she responds (Kennedy et al., 2017). Even after this heated exchange, Leia includes Poe in the planning discussions and listens to his suggestions. Although he was chastised, Poe is also given the chance to practice his growing leadership skills.
After General Organa is wounded and Admiral Holdo takes command, the viewer truly experiences transformational leadership through the eyes of Poe. While Admiral Holdo faces distrust and sexism from Poe, her transformational style eventually does transform him. Ayman and Korabik (2010) describe gender as “a cue that activates stereotypes and attributions that affect initial judgments and evaluations” (p. 160). As such, Admiral Holdo’s gender cues both Poe and the viewer to regard her with distrust. For one, she is introduced in the film as a war hero, and women leaders are judged as “less effective when they are in male-dominated settings or leadership roles that are defined as more masculine,” like the military (Ayman & Korabik, 2010, p. 159). She also employs a “dominant style of communication” (Eagly et al., 2003, p. 573), telling Poe he is “impulsive and dangerous. Stick to your post and follow my orders” (Kennedy et al., 2017). By all evidence, Poe is the sole cause for the extreme loss of life, and yet both Poe and the viewer interpret this conversation as cutting and arrogant, reflecting how women leaders who need to make autocratic decisions are “rated more harshly than men” who do so (Ayman & Korabik, 2010, p. 166). Later in the film, frustrated by his inability to command, Poe yells, “Hey, lady,” at Holdo, his superior officer, before calling her a coward and a traitor, throwing a chair in a tantrum, and even attempting a failed mutiny (Kennedy et al., 2017). It is hard to imagine Poe ever behaving this way with male Admiral Gial Ackbar or even with General Leia. Admiral Holdo is poorly perceived not because of her lack of leadership skills, but because she fails to combine her more agentic qualities with the “warmth and friendliness” so often required by female leaders to be respected (Ayman & Korabik, 2010, p. 414). Before long, though, the viewer sees Admiral Holdo in a different light: she says of Poe, smiling warmly to Leia, “That one’s a troublemaker. I like him,” demonstrating the transformational leader’s natural skepticism of the status quo and embracing Poe’s challenging nature (Kennedy et al., 2017; Eagly et al., 2003). This sincere exchange immediately improves perceptions of Holdo, reflecting the more feminine qualities viewers and followers expect in a woman.
How, then, does Admiral Holdo lead and transform Poe if he so vehemently opposes her leadership? She relies on General Leia’s deft use of individualized consideration, with a show of her own absolute dedication and competence, to both teach and transform him. Once the transport ships are loaded with the remaining Resistance fighters, Admiral Holdo tells Leia that she will stay behind to pilot the cruiser, sacrificing herself in both the military tradition of going down with the ship as well as the traditional female leader’s style of promoting others’ welfare above her own (Simon & Hoyt, 2019). Poe and Leia then watch the cruiser from the window of their unarmed transport headed to the Rebel base on Crait. From this spot, Leia gives Poe another lesson: “Holdo knew the First Order was tracking our big ship. They’re not monitoring for little transports” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Poe recognizes the potential of the plan, praising it before Leia goes on: “She was more interested in protecting the light than she was in seeming like a hero” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Leia teaches him a lesson without shaming him or making him feel stupid. She provides the facts and allows Poe to grow and learn from his mistakes.
Admiral Holdo’s final act solidifies her position as transformational leader and is the turning point for Poe’s own growth. The First Order has found the Resistance yet again and has begun picking off the transport ships as they enter the atmosphere of Crait. Holdo is aboard the only remaining Resistance vessel that can protect her people. Innovative as ever, she uses the last remains of fuel to turn the Raddus to face the First Order’s lead ship and jump to lightspeed. As Resistance fighters exclaim that she is running away, Poe defends her, stating simply, “No, she isn’t” (Kennedy et al., 2017). He understands her plan, and so does the audience, as the sheer acceleration of the cruiser slices the First Order ship in twain, buying the transport ships the time they need to land and get to base. Her quick thinking reveals her “masterful, instrumentally competent” leadership and acts as a case of idealized influence and intellectual stimulation (Eagly et al., 2003, p. 572). Holdo’s final lesson transforms Poe, who spend the remainder of the film engaged in his own intellectual stimulation, thinking through problems to find creative solutions in the style of Holdo. This transformation is also paid off for the viewer in the final encounter with the First Order on Crait. Poe recognizes the futility of running into a battle they will surely lose, instead embracing Holdo’s lesson to protect the light. He encourages the Resistance to follow him to escape. As the team looks to General Leia for input, she replies, “What are you looking at me for? Follow him.” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Leia sees that her and Holdo’s transformational leadership has prepared the next generation of Resistance leaders, and Poe has been empowered to continue the mission.
Not only does transformational leadership ensure the survival of the Resistance in The Last Jedi, it saves Luke Skywalker from his own tumble into laissez-faire failure. According to Vinkenburg et al. (2011), laissez-faire leadership “is marked by a general failure to take responsibility for managing” (p. 11). Once a great Jedi master who saved even Darth Vader from the dark side, Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi feels as though he has failed as a Jedi leader. He has exiled himself to the island of Ahch-To and cut off his connection to the Force so that his Force-using sister Leia cannot feel his presence (Kennedy et al., 2017). In every way, he has become a laissez-faire leader. He is completely absent from the Resistance fight, and he is not involved “during critical junctures” (Eagly et al., 2003, p. 571). Rey, the young Force-user who has come to bring Luke back to the Resistance, finds him so uninspiring and closed-off that she leaves the island without him. So disillusioned with leadership is he that he considers setting the Jedi temple ablaze. It is at this moment that a transformational leader arrives in the form of a Force ghost: Yoda. Yoda, one of the greatest Jedi of all time, was once Luke’s teacher and leader, and even after death, he provides the transformational leadership Luke requires. Yoda expresses all the factors of transformational leadership; he “elevates people by vesting in them a sense of possibility, a belief that changes can be made and that they can make them” (Burns, 2003, p. 239). As Skywalker wallows in self-pity for having failed as a teacher, Yoda reframes this failure as the best sort of education: “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters” (Kennedy et al., 2017). This clear example of inspirational motivation encourages Luke, and he recognizes that taking a laissez-faire approach while Leia leads without him is ineffective. Instead, Luke “must rise above narrow interests” (Burns, 2003, p. 26) to contribute to a cause larger than himself.
In the final act, Luke returns and leads the Resistance in one of the greatest examples of intellectual stimulation in a Star Wars film. Reconnected with the Force, Luke uses his power to astral project himself to Crait, acting as a decoy so Poe can lead the Resistance to safety. This innovative technique is visually stunning and emotionally moving, and most of all, effective. It gives Luke Skywalker the opportunity, as a follower of transformational leadership, to self-actualize and contribute to change in the galaxy (Burns, 2003, p. 15). His change from laissez-faire leader to transformational leader reveals the redeeming power of transformational leadership and the futility of a laissez-faire style when faced with complex social problems, whether here on Earth or in a galaxy far, far away.
In contrast to the hopeful, future-looking, and female-led transformational leadership of the Resistance, the First Order utilizes transactional leadership, often in the most manipulative and destructive of ways. According to Vinkenburg et al. (2011), transactional leadership, which “entails establishing exchange relationships by rewarding subordinates for a job well done and punishing them for mistakes and omissions,” is a less effective leadership style than transformational leadership (p. 11). Supreme Leader Snoke, as leader of the First Order, employs the three factors of transactional leadership throughout The Last Jedi: passive management by exception, active management by exception, and contingent reward.
From the first scene in The Last Jedi, Snoke utilizes passive management by exception. Eagly et al. (2003) explain that passive management by exception involves leaders waiting to involve themselves until the problem is severe and requires intervention. In Supreme Leader Snoke’s case, he is noticeably absent from the opening battle with the Resistance. Instead, General Hux makes all decisions during the fight. Hux struggles for much of the battle, waiting too long to fire up the cannons and only calling for a squad of TIE fighters after the Resistance X-wings have done considerable damage. Although the Resistance takes great losses, they do neutralize one of the First Order’s most feared battleships: the dreadnought. Throughout this difficult battle, Hux receives no input from Snoke, although he clearly needs it. It is only after the dreadnought is destroyed and the battle is finished that the Supreme Leader makes an appearance, and even then, he appears as a hologram, not deigning to meet his general in person. This passive management is a classic example of transactional leadership: Snoke is interested in leading only when he can no longer avoid it.
Another factor of transactional leadership is active management by exception, or attention given to “correcting [followers] for failing to meet objectives” (Eagly et al., 2003, p. 571). Supreme Leader Snoke spends much of his time with his followers attending to their mistakes, and in contrast to General Leia, he offers no opportunity for learning or personal development through individualized consideration. In fact, he seems to relish opportunities for manipulative, antagonistic discipline. For example, after the loss of the dreadnought, Snoke, via hologram, physically assaults General Hux. Using the Force, Snoke slams Hux’s body to the ground and slides him around the ship, humiliating him in front of his crew and physically hurting him. When Hux regains control of his body and can stand, he has a bloodied lip. Supreme Leader Snoke is not satisfied with simply correcting errors; he uses his followers’ mistakes as a chance to punish and manipulate. This manipulation is particularly clear in conversations with his Force-using apprentice Kylo Ren, grandson of Darth Vader. In one of their first exchanges in The Last Jedi, Snoke says to Kylo: “When I found you, I saw what all masters live to see. Raw, untamed power. And beyond that, something truly special: the potential of your bloodline. A new Vader. Now, I fear I was mistaken” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Kylo attempts to defend himself, recounting how he murdered his own father, Han Solo, in allegiance to Snoke and the dark side. Snoke’s response reveals the depths of his cruelty as a leader: “The deed split your spirit to the bone. You are unbalanced. Look at you. Bested by a girl who had never held a lightsaber. You failed” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Snoke’s words are designed to hurt Kylo in his most vulnerable places, focusing on his inability to cut off the light side of the Force. He even employs casual misogyny, calling Rey, a formidable Force-user, “a girl” simply to emasculate Kylo Ren (Kennedy et al., 2017). Not satisfied with these verbal jabs, Snoke strikes Kylo with force lightning. He ends his diatribe with a blow to Kylo’s deepest vulnerability, comparing him to his grandfather and idol: “Alas, you’re no Vader. You’re just a child in a mask” (Kennedy et al., 2017). These humiliating reprimands are calculated attacks intended to provoke Kylo Ren to become even more dedicated to the dark side. This behavior stands as a clear contrast to General Leia’s transformational empowerment of her followers to choose to act differently, not be bullied into compliance.
The final component of transactional leadership, contingent reward behavior, or the giving of “rewards for satisfactory performance,” can be used successfully, even by transformational leaders (Vinkenburg et al., 2011). However, Supreme Leader Snoke only embraces contingent reward behavior to manipulate his followers, not celebrate their successes. Early in the film, Snoke compliments General Hux for tracking the Resistance, only to call him a “rabid cur” after he has left the room (Kennedy et al., 2017). Snoke is patently insincere in his giving of praise. After Kylo Ren brings Rey to the throne room, Supreme Leader Snoke praises him, saying, “Well done, my young and faithful apprentice. My faith in you is restored” (Kennedy et al., 2017). This language is a complete turn from his earlier berating, and he uses this praise to get what he wants. Snoke continues, “My worthy apprentice, son of darkness, heir apparent to Lord Vader. Where there was conflict, I now sense resolve; Where there was weakness, strength. Complete your training and fulfill your destiny” (Kennedy et al., 2017). It was only the last time they spoke that Snoke told Kylo he was no Vader, and yet now, he names him “heir apparent” (Kennedy et al., 2017). Why does Supreme Leader Snoke make such an about-face? This is no embrace of contingent rewards in the pursuit of light side leadership; Snoke’s goal is to manipulate Kylo into murdering Rey in order to give himself completely to the dark side.
Transactional leadership, as exemplified by Supreme Leader Snoke in The Last Jedi, is a less effective leadership style more often employed be men, according to Vinkenburg et al. (2011), and yet Snoke sits atop the hierarchy of a massive, galaxy-wide military dictatorship. Nothing is known of how Snoke came to be Supreme Leader in the Star Wars films, but his position may reflect the “double standard” that gives men who employ less effective leadership styles more opportunities for leadership over women who use more effective styles (Eagly et al., 2003, p. 584). Likewise, Ayman and Korabik (2010) point out that “just because someone holds a leadership position, it does not imply that they are an effective leader” (p. 161). Truly, Supreme Leader Snoke is ineffective, and before long, his malevolent incompetence becomes his undoing. Having manipulated Kylo Ren for the duration of The Force Awakens and most of The Last Jedi, Snoke is destroyed by his own follower. Just as Snoke believes he has convinced Kylo to kill Rey, Kylo turns the lightsaber and slices the Supreme Leader in half. This act is a perverse reflection of the empowerment General Leia cultivates in her followers, allowing Poe to lead alongside her once he has been transformed. In the demented, transactional leadership of men like Supreme Leader Snoke, the only “empowerment” is found in perpetuating corrupt and even dangerous leadership. Having witnessed the immoral, transactional actions of the First Order contrasted with the inspiring, life-changing leadership of the Resistance, viewers rightly see the power of transformational leadership.
By demonstrating the efficacy of transformational leadership, Star Wars: The Last Jedi makes an argument for both an increase in female leaders, who display more transformational behaviors, and an increase in transformational leaders in general: women and men who will embrace idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration to empower their followers. Transactional and laissez-faire leadership is expressed rightly as ineffective and outdated in both Star Wars’ society and ours, where the needs of the people are vast, and complex political situations are often dire. One wonders if General Leia and Admiral Holdo were scholars of Burns (2003), who says transformational leadership is “the first spark that awakens people’s hopes” (p. 240). For those who responded to The Last Jedi with criticism sprung from “cultural anxiety around this particular generational handoff,” there is no need to fear (VanDerWerff, 2017, para. 19). While transformational leadership may look different than the approaches of the past, it is more effective, more inclusive, and deeply empowering, and it may just be our only hope.
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 Interestingly, this cue does not occur for Leia, who has been portrayed as both a sex object and a strong leader in the Star Wars franchise since 1977. She has honed the ability to portray “strength and sensitivity,” a clear example of how “older women who have maintained themselves in leadership roles may have faced…more intense role incongruity pressures” and have learned to navigate them (Vinkenburg et al., 2011, p. 19; Eagly et al., 2003, p. 574).