From a certain perspective his mass murder, brutal oppression, and frequent deception to serve his own ends makes him seem like a pretty bad guy. But if you look past all that to his action, you will find a very capable and effective project manager.
In the name of finding silver linings in dark clouds, I’d like to present the top 10 reasons why Darth Vader was an amazing project manager.
Number 10: Vader prioritized brutally. Over the course of Vader’s pursuit of the Rebel Alliance, you see him set and pursue priorities according to their strategic value. When he knew the plans for the Death Star had been leaked, he focused on mitigating that risk. When Luke came on the scene, he shifted priorities to recruit him to the Dark Side! Vader paid close attention to the happenings of the galaxy, evaluated the impacts of any given issue, and went after the highest priorities…time after time. No emotional attachments, no personal agendas…just the right thing to do to preserve the Imperium, and see his project through to successful completion. In project management, if you can’t prioritize, you won’t get anything done, let alone anything done well.
Number 9: Vader made decisions based on objective data, not whims. Remember that Imperial officer who had to report to Vader that they had lost Han Solo in the asteroid field, and he choked him? That was some decisive action! Vader consistently evaluated the performance of his team, and made changes to fix problems when the team didn’t perform. Sure, there may have been some fear and terror, but put all that aside. The inclination to objectively evaluate the performance of your team and not accept substandard performance is an important one. Project teams needs to feel safe and supported, but they also need to know that the project goals need to get met, and if you aren’t delivering on your commitments, changes need to get made. Thank you, Vader, for making tough choices to accomplish your goals!
Number 8: Vader made commitments, and worked hard to keep them. If you think of the Galactic Empire as something of a SCRUM project, the Emperor would have to be playing the Product Owner role. Of course, in SCRUM/Agile, the team makes commitments to achieve predefined goals over the course of any given sprint or iteration. Darth did this with the Emperor many times, and he worked REAL hard to make sure those commitments were met. I mean, how did he manage to get that second Death Star operational so quickly anyway? Hard work, that’s how. Vader understood the importance of commitments, and more importantly, the significance of fulfilling them. Trust in teams is built on commitments.
Number 7: Vader took time to re-charge, relax, and get some perspective. Projects and the achievement of project goals can often feel like super-high stakes. Everyone on the team is motivated to solve the problem, and get to done. Conflict is inevitable in that kind of environment, and a good project manager needs to get in there and confront those issues head-on. Of course, this can be exhausting, emotionally and intellectually. Vader understood this, and was careful to take time out of his busy project schedule to relax, meditate, and give himself room to gain some perspective about what was really important. Remember that awesome rehab egg thing he had in his quarters? Good project managers care, and they need to express that care, but they also need to maintain objectivity, which means they need to give themselves the time and space to regain perspective.
Number 6: Vader managed risk and expectations…pre-emptively. Remember that time when Darth Vader went to Cloud City, bought off the management, then lured Han, Leia, and Chewbacca into a trap? Genius. The amount of planning and forethought that went in to that little exercise must have been epic. After some serious prioritizations, Vader perceived the highest risk to his Galaxy, and made a plan to mitigate the risk stat! Additionally, you saw him having conversations with team members all over the place making sure they understood clearly what his expectations were with regards to the achievement of goals. Good project managers think about their projects defensively, and act to protect them aggressively.
Number 5: Such a persuasive fellow. Of all Vader’s substantial capabilities, perhaps his most effective one was his ability to persuade people to do what he needed done. With the exception of his own kids (in his defense, have you ever tried to get your kids to do something?), he did a pretty great job of getting people to cooperate (whether through fear, obligation, or The Force!). The Imperium was so enormous, so full of complexities…it must have been a serious challenge to navigate that and convince people that his vision of the project was one that they could all get behind.
Number 4: Vader picked a methodology and stuck with it…until it didn’t work. In keeping with the commitment to objectivity in performance, Vader picked his methodology of fear, manipulation, and aggression, and stuck with it, until it was clear that the methodology was not working anymore. Everyone knows that Vader betrayed his Emperor to save Luke from certain death upon Luke’s refusal to join the team in a certain role. Vader saw that his previous methods of fear and intimidation didn’t seem to work with Luke, or any of the rebels any longer. Boom! Change of tactics to get the job done.
Number 3: No problem is too big to tackle. Sure, Vader had an enormous skepticism that served him well in managing risk. All good project managers need that ability. But good project managers also have to be optimistic enough to push through tough challenges and look for solutions, however improbable their success. The point at which the Rebels had slipped off the imperial radar screen, and holed up on Hoth…Vader was feeling pretty lost at that point, you know? Where the devil had those pesky rebels gone off to? How the bantha poodoo was Vader going to find them in the enormity of the galaxy? What is that? Send out thousands of spy droids to random planets and see what turns up? Low probability of success, but still better than zero? Done! Vader’s optimism and confidence in his team’s ability to overcome all obstacles is an excellent lesson in persistence.
Number 2: It is never too late to do the right thing. Everyone is presented with choices that have questionable moral consequences. The right thing is almost always something to be wrestled with. One of the most profound moments in Vader’s career came when he took responsibility for all the morally wrong things he did, and did the right thing. He never thought it could atone, but he did the right thing anyway. Project managers will make thousands of choices in the course of a project…some of which may be of questionable moral fiber including the omissions of details, avoided conversations, hidden pieces of data all to paint a better picture of the project. Good project managers will take the time to reflect on their choices, and re-make the choices they don’t feel good about. The right thing is crucial to trust on a team, even if the right thing is a hard thing.
Number 1: Vader was never afraid of getting his hands dirty. Every project will have boundaries drawn around the responsibilities of specific roles being played, and Vader knew his own role in the imperial project. But he never asked anyone to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself, and he made sure he had a clear understanding and appreciation for the hard things that his team had to execute on. This, I think, is what made Vader better than just good. No detail was overlooked. He didn’t micro-manage, necessarily. He got involved in the work of the project, and his team followed him because they knew he understood and was invested in the project’s success! Whether he was force-choking a non-performing admiral, or flying a tie-fighter, he contributed to the team’s success anyway he could.
Brandon Koeller is the CEO of FNX Studios, a Bellevue software product consulting firm. Brandon loves software, technology, and putting check marks in little boxes next to action items. He also loves Star Wars, which is way cooler than Star Trek.