May 23, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 10:38 am

Knowhow: Using The Force | What every exec can learn from Darth Vader

My 6-year-old son is seriously into Star Wars. As we were watching the movies recently, he turned to me and asked, "Why is Darth Vader such a mean leader?"

Coming from a kid who thinks the Sith are kind of cool, the question took me by surprise. On the other hand, it's rather heartening to see that even a small child can recognize bad management. Of course, the real question is not what makes Darth Vader such a bad leader. After all, when you're the Dark Lord of the Sith, you don't really need a reason. More aptly, the question is: What does it take to be a good leader?

No Intimidation

First, we have to dispense with the primary weapon of the Sith: fear. Darth Vader rules through terror, but the fact is, you don't need to have the power to choke people to death using the Force to create a climate of fear. Fear is very effective at getting people to move away from something. In the practice of Jujitsu, fear of injury is often quite sufficient to convince an attacker to dive headfirst into the ground or into the nearest wall. Some mistakes are a natural part of doing business. When people are shamed for making mistakes or threatened with loss of their jobs if they don't measure up, they become less creative, less dedicated and errors are not corrected.

Team Spirit

To be a positive leader, the first step you need to take is to focus on affiliation. You might also think of it as team spirit. When people come together to form a team, the first thing they do is look for common ground. To really create affiliation, the leader needs to actively get to know his team members and encourage them to get to know one another.

Independence

Next is building autonomy. Perhaps counter-intuitively, autonomy is the result of having structure. Structure lets each team member know what the others are doing well enough to trust them when they aren't visible. That trust is what permits autonomy.

Lack of structure is chaos. Too much structure is stifling. For example, when an employee comes up with a good idea and your response is to ignore them, that is too little structure. When you say, "Good idea! Here's how we can make it better!" that's too much structure. Appropriate structure is to say, "Great idea! How did you come up with it?"

Great Expectations

Competence is not just hiring competent people. It's creating an atmosphere of competence. Nothing succeeds like the expectation of success.

Managers can motivate employees in one of two ways: you can focus on failures, and make dire predictions about what will happen if employees screw up; or you can focus on success, and remind the employee of the things they did well.

The keys to great leadership are: get away from fear, build affiliation, create structure to enable autonomy, and craft an atmosphere of competence.

The hard part is finding the right balance for your team and your company. Start slowly and let yourself accelerate as you learn to use these techniques effectively. You'll soon be amazed at how fast you're going.

Stephen Balzac is president of 7 Steps Ahead in Stow and the author of "The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development," published by McGraw-Hill. He can be reached at steve@7stepsahead.com.

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