Leadership in the Movies:
Star Wars

The Emerging Leader

star wars

This is part of a series of articles that combine two great passions of mine: leadership and movies. The series seeks to explore leadership through the lens of select movies. Today we are looking at the 1977 movie Star Wars (later retiled Star Wars Episode IV : A New Hope) directed by George Lucas and featuring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. I always recommend you watch the movie before reading the analysis so as not to spoil a great movie.

The film tells the story of how the pursued Princess Leia of the resistance group, the Rebel Alliance, uploads blueprints of the Empire’s galactic space station, the Death Star, into the memory of an astromech droid (R2-D2) shortly before her arrest. R2 and his protocol droid counterpart C-3PO, escape to the desert planet Tatooine to deliver the message to the retired Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. The droids are sold into the service of local farmers Luke Skywalker and his step uncle and aunt. Whilst Luke and the droids are away delivering the message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, Imperial Stormtroopers attack the farm killing his aunt and uncle. Young Skywalker joins Obi-Wan to learn the ways of a Jedi warrior and assist Princess Leia and the rebel alliance (transported by mercenary pilot Han Solo). Originally bound for the destroyed planet of Alderaan, they find themselves aboard the Death Star rescuing Princess Leia. Obi-Wan sacrifices himself so they can escape with the princess and the blueprints. They make it to the rebel base and Luke Skywalker joins a team of fighter pilots that destroys the Death Star using information gleaned from the technical readings of the station. It is young Skywalker (guided by the power of the Force) who fires the shot that destroys the space station aided by Han Solo. In a final ceremony Solo and Skywalker are decorated by Princess Leia.

This movie, celebrated for its action and visual effects, is a powerful framework for emerging leadership. George Lucas self-confessedly deployed Joseph Campell’s work on mythology to structure the storyline of Star Wars. Campbell’s 1949 text, The Hero with the Thousand Faces, is a comparative study of centuries of mythological stories. In this study, Campbell identifies a common structure or sequence of actions called the ‘monomyth’ that all great mythological stories follow. A much quoted summary of the monomyth can be found in the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This is often depicted in visual form:


Below is an analysis of how Lucas uses Campbell’s monomyth (or Hero’s Journey as it is sometimes called) in Star Wars:

(The first section of the story is about the separation of the hero from the normal world).

1/ The Call to Adventure
The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to take up sword (literally or figuratively) and head off into the unknown.
Related to Star Wars
Early in the movie we see a restless and unchallenged Luke Skywalker cleaning the druids. Princess Leia’s holographic cry for help is triggered. They seek out Obi-Wan Kenobi who asks Luke to join him in the adventure.
Key quotations
Luke: “I’m never going to get out of here”
Leia: “Help us, Obi-Wan, you’re our only hope!”
Obi-Wan: “You must learn the ways of the force if you are to come with me to Alderaan”

2/ Refusal/Acceptance of the call
The hero, hearing the call to adventure, initially may hesitate, reluctant to leave the comfort and tasks of their everyday existence. Having first refused to accept the the call to adventure, the hero finally accedes, realising that there is nobody else who is better qualified or available to accept responsibility.
Related to Star Wars
Luke initially declines Obi-Wan’s request to join him because of his responsibilities and duties to his uncle. Upon returning to find the family farm destroyed by the Empire, he has no reason to stay.
Key quotations
Luke: “I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do… It’s not that I like the Empire, I hate it but there is nothing I can do about it right now. It’s all such a long way from here.”
Luke: “I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”

3/ Supernatural Aid
Help is given to the hero (sufficient to make them wiser, stronger and hopefully better able to face the challenges of the adventure). The aid given may include maps, information, weapons or some special talisman. It may be discovered by the hero, but is often furnished by a mentor of some kind. The hero may also be joined by a companion of some kind or perhaps an entire party, who will provide help along the way but cannot do what the hero must do.
Related to Star Wars
Luke receives the lightsaber, plus guidance and training from Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is later joined by Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia.
Key quotations
Obi-Wan: “I have something for you… Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough”

4/ The Crossing of the First Threshold
The crossing of the threshold is the point of no return as the hero sets out on the journey.
Related to Star Wars
Luke leaves his home planet of Tattoine.
Key quotations
Obi-Wan: “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”

5/ Entering the belly of the whale
The hero enters the zone of danger. This may start immediately after the first threshold or may require some travel.
Related to Star Wars
The Millennium Falcon is drawn into the Death Star by a tractor beam.
Key quotations
Hans Solo: “We’re caught in a tractor beam. It’s pulling us in.”

(In the main part of the story the hero is initiated into true heroic stature by various trials and rites. Through daring and battle, the true character emerges).

6/ The Road of Trials
The hero faces many adventures along the way. Each trial may be more difficult than the last as the hero grows in confidence and capability.
Related to Star Wars
Luke Skywalker undergoes many roads of trials such as the rescue of Princess Leia, being caught in the garbage chute, escaping from the Death Star, destroying the Death Star whilst under attack.
Key quotations
Han: “Travelling through hyperspace aint like dustin’ crops boy”

7/ The Meeting with the Goddess
On the road, the hero may meet a powerful female figure with whom he finds unity and bonding of some kind.
Related to Star Wars
Luke meets Princess Leia
Key quotations
Luke: “I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you.”

8/ Woman as the Temptress
Along the way, the hero may meet temptation, often in female form.
Related to Star Wars
Princess Leia acts as an innocent temptress as both Luke and Han are beguiled by her.
Key quotations
Luke Skywalker: “Who is she? She’s beautiful”
Han Solo: “Wonderful girl. I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.”

9/ Atonement with the Father
The hero may well come up against a ‘father figure’ who must be beaten, persuaded or whose approval must be achieved in some way. Ultimately, by whatever means, the difficult relationship between the two must be reconciled
Related to Star Wars
Luke’s surrogate father is his domineering uncle Owen; later in the series it is revealed that Darth Vader is his real father and Skywalker sets about confronting him.
Key quotations
Aunt Beru: “Owen, he can’t stay here forever… Luke’s just not a farmer Owen, he has too much of his father in him.”

10/ Apotheosis
This is a point of realization in which a greater understanding is achieved. Armed with this new knowledge and perception, the hero is resolved and ready for the more difficult part of the adventure.
Related to Star Wars
Luke gains more self-confidence as he gains more understanding of the ways of the force. Obi-Wan transforms to a higher realm.
Key quotations
Obi-Wan: “Remember, The Force will be with you always.”
Obi-Wan: “You can’t win Darth… if you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

11/ The Ultimate Boon
Eventually through the many trials, the goal of the journey is achieved. This is the ultimate boon. The boon may be finally gained after a battle with the ultimate villain or a particularly difficult last trial.
Related to Star Wars
The ultimate battle to destroy the Death Star in which Luke finally trusts in the force and succeeds in launching a missile attack which destroys the Death Star.
Key quotations
Obi-Wan: “Use the Force Luke, let go Luke… Luke trust me”
“Great shot kid, that was one in a million.”

(After initiation the hero can return in triumph to deserved recognition).

12/ Refusal of the Return
Having gained the Ultimate Boon, the hero wants to stay in the place where they have found bliss and enlightenment. In comparison, the dull monotony of ‘normal life’ seems unacceptable, making the hero want to re-live the excitement in some way.
Related to Star Wars
Luke stays with the rebels rather than going back to Tattooine.

13/ The Magic Flight
The hero hurries home with the treasure that has been gained in the Ultimate Boon.
Related to Star Wars
The treasure that Luke gains in the ultimate boon is the realisation of the power of the Force. When he destroys the Death Star, the forces of good and evil are depicted with Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice and an image of Darth Vader before cutting to a shot of the spaceships’ flight home.
Key quotations
Han: “You’re all clear, kid! Now let’s blow this thing and go home!”

14/ Rescue from Without
The hero is rescued from a final plight from an unexpected source.
Related to Star Wars
Han Solo returns to support Luke.
Key quotations
Luke: “I knew you’d come back, I just knew it.”
Han: “Well, I wasn’t going to let you get all the credit and take all the reward.”

15/ The Crossing of the Return Threshold
The hero returns home, where they are safe from further pursuit or woes.
Related to Star Wars
Home for Luke is not a farmer in a “desolate place”, but a Jedi Knight.

16/ Master of the Two Worlds
Having completed the journey; the hero is now a master of both the domestic and alien worlds and can pass over the threshold between the two without further trial.
Related to Star Wars
Luke can finally feel comfortable in the terrestrial and hyperspace worlds.

17/ Freedom to Live
At last, having conquered the demons without and within, the hero has earned the right to live life as they choose. The life of the hero may hence take many paths, often one of wisdom. They may become rulers, teachers or advisers. They may get married and settle down or perhaps go adventuring again.
Related to Star Wars
Luke becomes a Jedi Knight, guardian of peace.
Key quotations
Obi-Wan “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times… before the Empire.”

Campbell himself acknowledges in a Power of myth interview that “Star Wars does the cycle perfectly”. This “hero’s journey” from call to adventure to freedom to live can be found in a great variety of storytelling from Homer’s Odyssey to modern movies such as Finding Nemo, Pretty Woman, Rocky, The Karate Kid, The Incredibles, Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings… the list of classic movies using the monomyth formula is endless.

Let’s link this back to the workplace. The monomyth traces the journey of the emerging leader as they cross the threshold from a secure existence to the journey of the unknown. Campbell characterises the crossing of the threshold in Hero with a Thousand Faces:

[The hero] comes to the “threshold guardian” at the entrance to the zone of magnified power. Such custodians bound the world in the four directions – also up and down – standing for the limits of the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is darkness, the unknown…

This is a transition from one state of being to another. Campbell elaborates the point in his Power of myth interview:

To get out of the posture of dependency to one of psychological self-responsibility requires a death and resurrection and that is the basic motif of the hero’s journey… leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring forth in a richer, more mature or other condition.

Emerging leadership is fundamentally a transition from dependency to self-responsibility which takes more than just learning new skills, it requires a transition of mindset, attitude and personal belief, what Campbell calls a transference of the ”spiritual centre of gravity”. It is the transition (or “death and resurrection”) that all emerging leaders in the workplace need to go through if they are to succeed as authentic and self-assured leaders.

From this analysis, what follows are some key learnings relating to how we can effectively support emerging leaders cross the threshold into the unknown zone of leadership:

Appreciate that the aspiring leader needs to pass through a death and resurrection from dependency to dependability and that this transition requires more than acquisition of new skills – they need to be ready and willing to cross the threshold and have the right attitude and frame of mind

Support mentorship within the organisation

Provide the young leader with the right tools and resources to be successful

Prepare the emerging leader by providing “roads of trials” for them (pre-leadership assignments and opportunities that will test and stretch them)

Accept that they will make mistakes and be tempted down wrong paths. Understand this is all part of the transitional journey.

Celebrate and reward their transition

Richard Kelly PhD.
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Look out for further articles in this series.