If nothing else has caused an increase in the discussion of the role of leadership in pop culture (and a disheartening number of think pieces on the dangers of feminism), it would probably be Star Wars: The Last Jedi. There will be fairly major spoilers in this essay.
As soon as the film was over, there were discussions in the car (I had forced my entire immediate family of 11 people to go with me) about our thoughts on some of the major events in the film. I had recently been thinking about project advocacy and leadership in my Project Management course and was seriously considering discussing some of the issues with both of these characteristics in the film. I’ve had a number of conversations with my family and other organizational scholars and though not everyone agrees with the perspective I’m sharing here, I hope it will at least make for an interesting read.
The film begins with a main character of Poe Dameron continuing to demonstrate his incredible prowess as an X-wing pilot but his lack of perspective as a commander in over-ruling a direct order from General Leia Organa in continuing with an attack on a large vessel called a dreadnaught. In this battle, the majority of the Resistance’s fighters and all of their bombers are destroyed. The poor outcomes in terms of ship loss leads Leia to demote Poe as a signal of her displeasure in his ability to follow orders. Chaos ensues after an attack on the fleet that leaves Leia out of commission and Admiral Holdo in charge of the Resistance fleet.
Issue 1: Admiral Holdo develops a plan for the Resistance to deal with the issue they face that is not shared with the majority of the crew, most importantly Poe.
Many fan theories argue that the majority of the bad things that happen in the film are due to this decision by Admiral Holdo. Poe approaches her to find out what is going on and she responds by stating that Poe is dangerous. There is also an implication in this conversation that due to Poe’s demotion, Leia would be in agreement that Poe did not deserve to be in on the decision. If Holdo had told Poe her plan, it is certainly possible that he would have agreed with her. It is also less likely that Poe would have mounted a mutiny later in the film. Regardless of how you feel about these possible outcomes, however, no one is happy with the way things turn out in the end. The outcomes are universally bad for the Resistance and it is not really any one person’s fault.
One thing that is left to the audience to decide in the film is what Admiral Holdo’s plan is and why she is not sharing her plan with anyone. On an initial viewing, the second part seems obvious: there could be a spy on board relaying messages about the location of the fleet. Therefore, if information was shared pre-maturely about their impending actions, then the spy could have time to share this message with the First Order who would have time to respond. This line of reasoning is unsatisfying by the end of the film as there is no spy. Finn and Rose determine in a very brief conversation that the First Order is probably tracking them with a new piece of technology that (bizarrely) can only monitor one ship at a time. They bring this information to Finn who decides not to share it with Holdo. This decision (which seems fairly reasonable in the information conditions in the film) leads to some pretty bad outcomes later on. Finn and Rose bring a hacker back to the fleet that ends up causing the death of the majority of the Resistance fighters. There were alternative ideas that could have been discussed if this finding where shared with Admiral Holdo and the rest of the Resistance. They could have, for example, decided to abandon the lead ship (which was already part of Holdo’s plan) board the remaining support ships and jump away. The First Order would not be able to track the other ships if they were still tracking the lead ship or the lead ship could jump to a different location entirely, leading the First Order away. The lack of openness on Poe’s side can be clearly seen as a detriment to the decision-making ability of Holdo. She was left to wonder how they were being tracked and made best guesses at good courses of action due to this.
However, Holdo is not blameless in this situation. There are a few reasons that she ended up being unsuccessful. I think can be useful to explore these through the lens of social networks, leadership, and advocacy.
Issue 2: Holdo failed to achieve advocacy for her plan from important players in the Resistance.
Many of the top members of the Resistance have been killed toward the beginning of the film. Admiral Holdo is a respected member of the Resistance and has demonstrated herself in at least a few important engagements—Poe alludes to this on hearing that she was next in the chain of command. There is therefore some level of hesitance when faced with this new leader as, though she is well respected, she is not personally known to our heroes. Holdo though providing some level of inspiration in her first speech, primarily states that the situation is under control. Though this appears sufficient for many of the crew, this does not ring as inspirational for others. Poe is unsatisfied as described earlier and Rose has caught a number of people attempting to escape (including Finn). Finn has some justification for wanting to escape (finding Rey) but others seem to feel strongly enough that the Resistance is doomed (which they may have felt whether or not Holdo showed stronger inspiration) that they want to desert.
We know from research on leadership that one of the strongest, most universally positive forms of leadership that we can engage in is called Transformational Leadership. This leadership style uses inspiration to motivate individuals toward their jobs. Trying to demonstrate that individuals are important, their jobs are vital, and that they are part of something bigger. I think that Admiral Holdo is actually trying to engage in transformational leadership but runs into some problems. First, there are no tasks besides survival. This isn’t active, isn’t sexy, and for many of the individuals on the ship, it goes against their active, guerrilla tactics from the past. Second, she is unwilling to sugar-coat that the flyboys and other fighters are not as important now as they used to be. This isn’t necessarily bad (she is being honest) but it isn’t satisfying to an influential population on the ship.
I think that Admiral Holdo should have realized that she needed advocates for her and her plans from some of these populations within the crew. When Poe came to her, she was engaging with him as an individual, ensuring that he realized that she owed him nothing. She was informing those that needed to know what the plan was but not letting the details slip farther than she should grasp. Poe wanted to subvert his position and assert himself where his rank and role dictated that he didn’t belong. I have heard arguments that Holdo’s response in this conversation is gendered in that this interaction where a male subordinate feels entitled to information they don’t deserve and are more willing to ask for it if their superior is a woman. I think that this is a plausible reason for Holdo’s dismissive treatment of Poe (he’s just another hot shot who needs to be knocked down a peg), but there is very little evidence that the Star Wars Universe has the same prescribed gender stereotypes that we do on Earth. Therefore, I think that this reading of the situation is partially hampered.
A bigger issue was that Holdo was interacting with Poe as a person in that situation as opposed to recognizing his influential position within the social network of the Resistance. Holdo was not necessarily in a position to see how Poe could be a great advocate for or against her. When she treated him in the way that he deserved to be treated to keep the hierarchy of the Resistance in place, she unfortunately created a new faction within the Resistance that eventually attempted a coup. Holdo does not appear to have recognized the importance of finding others to advocate and support her decisions. In typical times, her legitimate power would be enough to lead to unquestioning loyalty. But she was working with individuals who only respected her based on her position of authority (which some didn’t see as legitimate) and her prior actions (which did not seem to align with the response she was mounting). Holdo needed additional supporters to commit to her until the plan was finally enacted. The time periods in the film are fairly compressed so she only needed something like 36 hours so she may not have seen the value in convincing others that she deserved her legitimate authority. In a perfect world, she shouldn’t have had to find others to advocate for her. But this was a desperate situation and though her management style worked for some, it led, in part, to bad outcomes for everyone.
Poe also felt legitimate in his actions but failed to recognize the risks and dangers inherent in this strategy and felt unwilling to support Holdo for fear that she would not understand and would prevent the knowledge of the tracking technology from being put into active consideration in their response. This perspective from Poe is ludicrous in that he believes that Holdo must want them all to die in some sort of last stand that would then win them supporters in the rest of the galaxy. Something akin to a False-flag where an utterly destroyed Resistance is re-birthed after this crushing defeat. This is ridiculous on its face. Poe’s actions actually lead to the utter destruction and necessary re-birth of the Resistance though that was obvious not his intention. Though both primary parties to blame here (Poe and Holdo) made some bad decisions, they were both also seeing the problem space in a different way. Poe saw the loss of the flagship as inconceivable whereas Holdo saw it as unavoidable. Less posturing and less brashness on the part of Poe would have led to different outcomes. The film attempts to demonstrate that Poe has learned this personal fault later in the film when they are facing down the siege cannon. Unfortunately, this scene was not parallel enough to work for me. Destroying the siege cannon may be the only way to ensure that the remaining Resistance fighters can survive until health arrives therefore a sacrifice here seems much more reasonable than in the initial fights against the dreadnaught.