Movies and TV have given us no shortage of portraits of people we’d rather not encounter in real life — just think of all the nefarious villains and unscrupulous anti-heroes that have graced the screen. If you saw Thanos or Gordon Gekko on the street, you’d run the other way screaming. The nice thing to note is that we can look at these things from a distance and recoil with horror, or laugh at the absurdity of them because we do it with the knowledge that we’re safe from having to deal with these people in our day-to-day. But what about those times when the screen all too closely resembles our reality? That’s when things get interesting. Throughout the history of the screen, this seems to happen with one particular archetype — that of the bad boss.
From Billy Wilder’s The Apartment to the extremely popular The Office, we’ve familiarized ourselves with a number of different stereotypes for bad bosses and seen first hand — well, second hand — how it can wreck a company, drive good people up a wall (and out the door), and negatively impact bottom lines. Here, in this blog series, we’ll be examining some classic “bad bosses” from cinema and television, and explain what — if they had even a modicum of self-awareness — they would need to do to change their behavior for the better. Whether it’s the well-meaning but wrongheaded optimism of Michael Scott, or the outright tyranny of a Miranda Priestly, we’ve provided the antidote.
For the third installment in our bad boss series, we’re examining perhaps one of the biggest baddies of them all (in terms of scale): Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars franchise. Those familiar with the series will recognize him as epitomizing the Dark Side of the Force and being the mastermind behind almost all of the decades-spanning dramatic tension in the franchise. Those unfamiliar only need to know one thing: he is an evil incarnate.
From shamelessly ordering children to be killed without so much as flinching, to the genocide-level wiping out an entire race of people (not to mention entire planet systems) Emperor Palpatine is, one might say, not a very “nice” person. In terms of the other leaders we’ve covered, Palpatine has by far the most authority — Galactic Emperor is a pretty big title, after all — and is by far the evilest. While the other bosses we’ve examined so far resemble some level of reality (even if a heightened, satirized version), Palpatine is in a league all his own. Far from simply being neglectful or rude to his employees, Palpatine is pure malice, and disobeying his orders might result not in getting fired but in getting fired upon by a death squad.
While his lack of moral fortitude in the films remains fairly self-evident, let’s take a moment to examine some of his worst behaviors, why they’re bad, and how he might improve, if he so desired.
*CONTENT WARNING: Spoilers for the Star Wars franchise ahead.*
Palpatine is Duplicitous
At a point in the series [SPOILER], Palpatine is revealed to be the feared Sith Lord Darth Sidious, a dark force that’s been terrorizing the galaxy. His double identity as a powerful politician is no accident; he purposefully engineers a power vacuum with clever statecraft that his alter-ego dark lord can fill. Obviously, galactic domination is probably not a healthy goal. But further than that, he hides his true nature from even his closest associates, showing that he trusts no one and that his intentions are and have always been primarily to deceive other people. Power and influence gained through dishonest means such as these really aren’t “true” in the sense that it creates followers. Palpatine/Darth Sidious operate purely out of fear, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that his “team” feels criminally low amounts of psychological safety.
To fix this, he could begin to admit his real intentions and be forthright about his power hunger. Even if they’re unsavory, at least be honest with your motives!
He is Remorseless
Good leaders know when it would do them well to apologize, and great leaders feel a genuine desire to do so when they know they’ve been wrong. Palpatine is neither of these; his remorseless, wanton killings of everyone in his path show little empathy for humanity or a sense of guilt for any wrongdoing. Of course, why would he? He enjoys being evil. Despite the fact that apologizing, as Marshall Goldsmith has taught us in this course, can be a magic move to strengthen your followers’ trust in you as a leader, I doubt Palpatine will ever do this. To him, an apology means concession which means weakness. Too bad Palpatine will never have any true followers, only people who are scared of him.
A simple solution? Number one: try not to commit so many atrocities. Number two: apologize for them — sincerely — when you do.
He Micromanages and Does Not Trust His Team
Throughout Star Wars, we see Palpatine ‘pulling the strings’ of many different people. He manipulates, lies, and deceives pretty much everyone for his own purposes. He trusts no one and micromanages the activities of his lackeys (Anakin early on as the “senator”, later Darth Vader as the sith lord). Additionally, as we saw in the most recent installment of the series, Supreme Leader Snoke, the supposed heir to Palpatine’s evil throne, was nothing but a proxy for Palpatine himself. Even after his ostensible retirement, Palpatine’s incessant meddling in the affairs of his ‘heirs’ shows a lack of trust in his team and a belief that only he can do his job correctly. This inability to pass the buck onto the next generation is a hallmark of power-hungry and selfish leaders.
One simple solution would be to let go of the fantasy of power. In Palpatine’s case, the dude just needs to give it up; he needs to retire. Know when to throw in the towel and let the next generation rise.
Thankfully, a boss this bad will probably never materialize in real life. If they do, well, we’ve likely got some bigger, intergalactic problems to solve. (Unfortunately, not even the most riveting training course can undo a lifetime of pure malignancy and misanthropy). For those not-so-bad bosses, leadership training from Methods can help. Get access here to our library of courses, all taught by the top experts in their fields.