Psychologist, author, and speaker Sherrie Campbell, in a 2017 article for Entrepreneur, laid out seven such characteristics. Being that Star Wars at its core is about the human experience, it would hold that we would see these traits in Star Wars characters. The question, then, is not if but when do we see such examples exemplified?
1. Possess high levels of self-control
Self-control is more than simply doing good things. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, self-control is in fact “restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions, or desires.” This is where the Jedi of the prequels fall well short of the mark, as they went with the easy answer of fighting in a war instead of maintaining their core purpose as peacekeepers.
Still, the prequels are the place to look when it comes to leaders exacting phenomenal self-control. Despite his terrible intentions, Palpatine is far and above the pinnacle of a leader with self-control. He slowly but surely moves the chess pieces from one spot to another across the galaxy, being so intentional and thoughtful that his opponent, the Jedi, don’t even know they’re being played. The Chancellor turned Emperor had such exacting control over his impulses and emotions that he was not only able to hide in plain sight, he was able to convince the galaxy that his way was not just the best way, but the only way.
2. Stay clear of drama.
Harder said than done when it comes to a galaxy spanning conflict that basically centers around one really messed up family, but true all the same. It need be noted that staying clear of drama and not having any drama are two different things. To stay clear implies not seeking out the drama, not necessarily avoiding it all together. A leader, such as Princess/General Leia Organa, who does so is able to see the bigger picture and stay mission focused.
Being a Skywalker by bloodline, Leia was destined to have a life of drama and strife. But never did she actively try to find things to stir the galactic pot. Leia takes what is given to her and does what she can to right the ship. In fact, after her entire planet gets destroyed and she has to rescue her rescuers, Leia’s instructions to fellow rebels is to “save your sorrows.” Later, when she sees that another war is on the horizon, she forms the Resistance “to stand against the rising tyranny” of the First Order. When the time comes, the general is able to set everything else aside, even sometimes to her own personal detriment, to be not just a figurehead but also a true leader.
3. Seekers of truth
While there is most certainly cliche in the adage “honesty is the best policy,” there is also much truth. To be an effective leader, one must be willing to hear and tell the truth no matter the circumstances. As Campbell put it, “Great leaders prefer to hear, or to tell a tough and painful truth over giving or receiving a comforting mistruth as a way to avoid conflict or misfortune.”
The Jedi of the prequel era lived in that area of “comforting mistruth.” The top echelon of the order admitted to being clouded by the dark side but still clung to the idea that they were infallible. This contradiction lead them directly into a war they never should have been fighting. A comforting mistruth.
Yoda eventually did something about this. After Ahsoka Tano walked away from the order, Yoda’s reality was rocked by his former Padawan, Qui-Gon Jinn, who spoke to Yoda via the Force. The Grand Master was in a place where, thanks to Ahsoka, he knew things were not working. Thus, he became open to the idea that the truths he clung to depended greatly on his point of view. Enter Qui-Gon, who began to show Yoda that there was more to the Force than he could possibly imagine. It was this journey that lead to the Yoda we see in Empire Strikes Back, a starkly different character than the Yoda of the prequels. The only time we actively see Yoda training younglings in the prequel films, he is teaching them lightsaber skills. He does not do that with Luke. Rather, he helps guide him to self-actualization, the ultimate form of truth. His journey with Qui-Gon and 20 year sequester allowed for Yoda himself to self-actualize, and therefore help bring balance to the Force through young Skywalker.
4. Place courage over fear.
As Campbell puts it, “Exceptional leaders have developed mastery over their fears by training themselves not to regress under stress.” It is not about not being afraid, because even the idea of that can lead to arrogance and bravado. Rather, “to become fearless leaders, [one] must view hardships as tests which raise … basic levels of training.” This is what Jyn Erso excels at, and it allows her to lead by example. Rushing to save her father. Rallying the troops before the attack on Jedah. Rogue One is full of examples of Jyn pushing the fear back, but in a way that controls it instead of denies it. So when the troops need someone to step up and lead, Jyn is there to show them the way.
5. Empathy towards self and others.
While the Jedi of the prequel era seem to have gotten everything wrong, Padme Amidala seems to get everything right. Padme is a character who always empathizes with others, which allows her to make an emotional connection with those people. It starts with the Gungans and eventually spreads into her role as a Senator, where she has to put the needs of all people above the needs of the powerful.
Even though she did not technically start the Rebellion, it is clear that without her the Rebellion would not have been so deeply rooted in the good that was the Republic. Padme was emblematic of that good, as Leia will be for the Rebellion and Resistance. While the Republic did become rotten and corrupt, at its heart you had the Bail Organa’s and Padme Amidala’s of the galaxy, grasping to the hope that what was once good could be good again. Leia clings to that hope like her mother, and it allows her to keep her moral compass in the middle of a galactic spanning war. Both daughter and mother do exactly that, and in doing so keep the flame alive through the threats of the Empire and the First Order.
Self-aware characters are a rarity in fiction because of the need for characters to have personal growth in order for there to even be a story. Fully realized characters are not all that interesting, unless your a blind warrior monk like Chirrut Imwe. Even a character like Leia, who starts the story as a strong and independent individual, goes on a growth journey to embrace her newfound family, and later, during the era of the Republic, to realize that her place is not in politics but in leadership.
“Exceptional leaders never take their self-awareness for granted. They understand there are no shortcuts to success. It will require blood, sweat and tears,” Campbell writes. This gets down to The Last Jedi at its core. Episode VIII is a story of failure, yes, but it is a story of failure as a means to growth. It is a definite step (and sometimes a repeated step) in the journey of self-awareness.
Luke fails to understand the importance of his legend. Rey fails to see that her lineage doesn’t matter. Kylo Ren fails to see that the past is an important element in the present and future, not something that should be shunned at all costs. Luke, of course, learns his lesson in the second installment of the sequel trilogy, but Rey and Ren still have growth in front of them. Ultimately the goal is to be where Luke was at the end of Return of the Jedi; Luke knew himself and what he stood for perfectly in that moment, and that would influence the choices he made and his leadership style in later years.
7. Maintain and nurture their reputation.
There is a very fine line between maintaining and nurturing a reputation and being possessed by ego. Palpatine most certainly maintained his reputation, in the name of power instead of empowerment. Count Dooku, General Grievous, and even Darth Vader himself all handled their reputations in similar ways, and their ego would be part of their destruction.
Conversely, characters like Padme used their reputation for good. She nurtured what people thought of them not to gain power, but to empower. Padme, as an integral part of both Naboo and the Senate, always put the goals of democracy and the well-being of others first. In doing so, she created a level of trust that brought her to be a centerpiece figure for many of the decisions made during the war. She may not have always gotten her way, nevertheless she put others in a position where they could help themselves going forward. Without such leadership, it begs the question of whether those who would come to lead the Rebellion, namely Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, and even Ahsoka Tano, would have come together as they did. Just as Ben Kenobi’s reputation and sacrifice set Luke’s journey in motion, Padme’s reputation and example allowed the flame to keep burning during the dark times.
Leadership is one of the most difficult concepts to define. Ask ten different people and you’ll get twenty different answers about what “makes a good leader.” All the while, right in front of our very noses, the stories that surround us offer a clear lens as to what it takes to be a leader. One simply needs to take the lessons, adapt, and apply.