First published in 1976, and later popularized in a movie franchise, THIS is the book which introduced the worlds' science fiction fans to the character of Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, a "can-do" upper-management go-getter for the ages!
Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (played brilliantly by Peter Cushing) has been a hero and role model to business students for nearly two generations, and this is the book that started it all. Don’t get me wrong; he’s an evil bastard with no moral redeeming features- the Dick Cheney of long ago and far, far away- but he’s also one of the most able administrators in all of literature, which makes him a worthy subject to study. Truth be told, not only do most MBA’s probably not hold Tarkin’s evil against him, a good portion are probably secretly turned on by it. As an aside, American business schools, when they pay it any mind at all, have still not figured out how to infuse ethics into their curricula. In the wake of the TARP catastrophe, Bernie Madoff, Enron and Arthur Anderson (that's going back a few years) and the collapse of Bear Stearns, concern for ethics in business has at least gotten more lip service. Harvard brought on a prominent ethicist as the new head of its business school this year, but I suspect this is all just window dressing. They probably still see Tarkin foremost as a man who gets results. Well, he is that too, and in a big way!
"Intergalactic Man of Mystery"
Where to begin? It would be nice to begin at the beginning, but alas, Star Wars: A New Hope introduces us to Tarkin very late in his career (indeed, the very end), when he is fully-established and struggling to place an extraordinary capstone on an already-legendary career in public service. Like many fans of this series, I’m a bit disappointed at that. I yearn for more back-story, and marvel at what can only be a dumbfoundingly impressive biography. Where did he came from? How did he climb from obscurity (or not) all the way to the rarified atmosphere of senior galactic leadership? In this way, A New Hope resembles the 1987 movie Wall Street. Tarkin is Gordon Gekko, in every meaningful sense.
He comes to us with minimal exposition. Right out of the gate, he’s an ambitious executive with a whiff of street thug to him, who seems to have it all, yet continues to push himself relentlessly still higher. He is self-driven to a degree we find difficult to comprehend. While Gekko admonishes shareholders "Greed is good.", Tarkin has no need to sell his worldview to anybody. He obviously holds that power is good, but unlike Gekko has nobody to explain himself to. This in itself seems like supporting evidence that he is right. Also like Gekko, Tarkin is appallingly peripheral in his respective movie. Just as Wall Street abandons Gekko to focus on the story arc of infinitely-less-interesting Bud Fox, Star Wars gives Tarkin short-shrift in favor of Luke Skywalker and sister/girlfriend Leia. Tarkin alone could easily support an entire story franchise… and for all I know, he does. I haven’t followed much of the Star Wars fan literature, but I hope they’re doing the Grand Moff justice! The “Tarkinverse” (as I call it) must be very nearly as wondrous and astonishing as the overall Lucas/Star Wars universe of which it is a subset. Developing the Tarkinverse, however, is not the main point of A New Hope, which really functions as a showcase for this Master when he is at the top of his game. And man is he! In every measure of leadership, he’s firing on all cylinders! Let’s go down the list:
To list the obvious first, Tarkin is the Emperor’s point-man overseeing the all-time most ambitious construction project in all of literature, bar-none: the Death Star. My wife and I purchased what is best described as a “fixer upper” condo unit a year back, which had fallen into disrepair. To make the place livable, we had to rip out not only the floors (i.e. the “top floor“; the part you walk on) but also replace the sub flooring.
Since we were ripping the place up anyhow, it seemed an opportune time to replace some damaged tile in the bathroom, and do some cabinet and countertop work in the kitchen. This required farming out work to independent subcontractors. If you haven’t had any experience with that sort of thing, I can tell you that it involves constant communication and coordination between the various players. If you aren't organized, you’ll have workers getting in each other's way, which is wasteful and therefore expensive (since you're paying them to be there, whether they're working or not). Also, if, for example, an electrician needs to shut off the power, the others won’t be able to use power tools and lighting in that area. To some extent, the contractor responsible for the overall project will manage the subcontractors, but I was surprised how active the customer still needs to be in this situation, to constantly clarify details about how you want the final product to appear.
This requires a lot of attention to detail, and I’m only still talking about a condo renovation. The Death Star is obviously orders of magnitude beyond my little project, both in scale and complexity. Given, the Star Wars universe is more technologically advanced than ours, and may have developed tools to address the organizational challenges of constructing the Death Star… but even by their own internal standards, the Death Star is a project of breathtaking scope. To be the head of such an undertaking, and to have executed it so nearly-perfectly (it was operational, after all) is a testament to organizational skills of near-Biblical proportion.
I cannot really address the fiscal management skills involved with the Death Star, although I expect they must be impressive. Obviously, the operating budget was astronomical (literally!), but the economics of the Star Wars universe was always a bit murky to me. On one hand there seems to be an element of free market economy, but it coexists with slavery, and a sort of military/governmental command economy. Witness the prequil movies, where you see the capitol planet of Coruscant - an entire planet covered with bureaucratic office buildings!
Organization alone does not make a leader. A true leader must possess an idea of what he would like the end result to be, and effectively shape the resources at his disposal to that end. This is the “big picture” aspect of senior leadership that characterized Teddy Roosevelt’s administration (the Panama Canal being akin to the Death Star in so many ways)
-and which has more recently been (excessively) applied to Disney’s former Chairman, Michael Eisner. Tarkin’s clarity of vision (and its apparent alignment with the overall vision of the Emperor) jumps out and steals nearly every scene he’s in. Consider some of his lines:
"The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station."
"Princess Leia, before your execution, I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this battle station operational. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now."
Vader: Obi-Wan is here. The Force is with him.
Tarkin: If you are right, he must not be allowed to escape.
And of course perennial favorite:
"Now Lord Vader will provide us with the location of the hidden Rebel fortress. We will then crush the Rebellion with one swift stroke!"
See? There’s no
“Uh, I’m not sure about that… I’ll have to check with the Emperor.”
...and you never hear stuff like
“The Rebellion? I don’t know… what do you think we should do?”
Why don’t you hear that? Because Tarkin has a strong operational vision, that’s why!
As an aside, he’s also got a strong artistic vision. I have to assume that a man in Tarkin’s position, directly managing the Death Star’s construction, must have had a hand in its design. If this is true, my hat’s off to his creative talents. The Death Star, with its unified sense of style and functionality, is seriously lookin’ better than a military platform’s got a right to! With its innovative use of vertical space
…and its well-lit, inviting, open common areas…
…it looks downright luxurious! I am sure it would have won some sort of awards, had it survived to completion.
The Grand Moff cuts a marvelously confident figure. He is illustrious -almost regal- in his demeanor, yet possessing of a certain restraint which suggests untold power hiding, barely concealed, beneath his calm surface. The sum of these traits is a certain charisma you find in only a very few of the most effective leaders. As a result, his commanding presence is so perfectly constructed, so thorough and unquestioned, that it trumps Vader‘s dexterity with the Force. In fact, it doesn’t merely trump Vader, it so completely outclasses Vader as to make him irrelevent. Think I’m joking? First consider the scene when Darth Vader -a menacing figure in his own right- is using the Force to choke a high-ranking Imperial official.
How does that little exchange end? Tarkin steps in and rebukes Vader, commanding “Release him!” That puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? But that’s minor. Who’s giving the orders around that place? Tarkin. Who gives the command to destroy Alderaan? Tarkin. Do you think Vader could destroy an entire planet with the Force? (if the answer were yes, why build the Death Star at all?) I rest my case. Even as an eight-year-old sitting in the theater, watching the movie for the first time, I had a sense of this, as I’m sure so many others did. Vader was built up to be the one we were supposed to be scared of, but just like George W. Bush strutting around in his flight suit, he is all style and no substance. Tarkin is the Dick Cheney of the Death Star, hiding out in his “undisclosed locations”, wielding the real power from behind the scenes. David Rockefeller is the Emperor in this little analogy, which raises an interesting point: what about the Emperor? Isn’t he an even bigger fish than Tarkin? Well, on one hand, of course he is. Tarkin obviously answers to him and serves to carry out his vision, but Tarkin’s institutional knowledge and leadership proficiency make him indispensable. Further, just as Rockefeller was born into more money than any one person could accumulate in one lifetime, the Emperor possesses a supernatural skill which makes him something other than human. Tarkin is the apogee of what can be achieved with human qualities alone.
So let’s talk about his human qualities for a second. He is, after all, a man possessed of all the natural emotions any of us would experience. Do you think he‘s beyond feeling fear? Don‘t believe it for a second; Star Wars is a war movie, after all - just look: it's in the title! One of the most heartwrenching scenes of the entire series occurs when the Death Star is under Rebel attack. They are a small force, to be sure, but they have the secret of the battle station’s vulnerability. What’s more: Tarkin knows they have it. He has an inkling that they just might succeed, and thus he just might perish at any moment. Is he scared? "You betcha!" ...but when an aide comes up to him, advising of the Rebel threat, and asking whether he would like to have a shuttle standing by, Tarkin pushes his fears aside, and utters his now-famous response:
"Evacuate?! In our moment of triumph?! I think you overestimate their chances!"
You can practically see the aide’s morale reinflating at this. The boost troops get from seeing that their leader is willing to lead the charge, to expose himself to the very risks he would ask them to face, is intangible, but also incalculable. In the heat of battle, Tarkin puts on a stoic face and leads from the front! Can you imagine Douglas MacArthur doing more?
Of course, by outlining all this in excruciating detail, I am merely prolonging the admission that ultimately, Tarkin does not win the day. Luke, Leia and the rest of the Rebellion win a dark-horse victory in what will surely be their galaxy’s most famous long-shot story ever. These things happen. Like Gordon Gekko facing likely prison at the end of Wall Street, Tarkin manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Might, planning, organization and vision may make a great leader, but do not always translate to victory. There’s a morality tale at work here, of course, but also some lessons for your average high-finance sociopath: 1) never underestimate your enemies; 2) understand that even the best-laid plans may not cover every contingency- be prepared to abandon your plans if they are no longer suited to the situation at hand; 3) force, whether physical or symbolic (e.g. administrative),should only be applied as a last resort - it is inherently a position of weakness, because it can only be applied selectively to example cases, not wholesale across the entire broad base of society. This is why true grass-roots movements, like the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott can never fail if they are carried out tenaciously by a determined and broad-based public. Great Leaders can be impressive figures, but are also fundamentally weak in the sense that leaders always need followers more than followers need leaders. What I mean by this is that in the "leader-as-dictator" model, force and authority move predominantly downward, and the entire system is destroyed if participation/consent/acquiescence don't extend all the way from the top to the bottom. (e.g. dictatorships are toppled when the broad base at the bottom no longer cooperates) By contrast, in the "leader-as-servant" (public servant, or servant to some widely-shared ideal) model, force and authority move predominantly upward. These systems remain intact even when the leaders, whose main purpose is to coordinate efforts and direct tactics, are removed. So Gandhi was a leader, but he was a leader-as-servant.. not bending the public to his will, but rather acting as a focal point lending coherance to a pre-existing public sentiment. MLK was much the same, and the civil rights movement continued with new leaders after he was assassinated. The bottom of the proverbial pyramid is always stable, and may exist without the top. The top always depends on the base for support.