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3 Legendary Movie Villains Who Accidentally Schooled Us on Leadership

By Jimmy Schleisman:

Movies offer insight into endless topics from hundreds of perspectives, but the greatest applications they teach us are through the lessons the characters provide and how they can apply to business practices.

With regards to HR, employee engagement, retention and acquisition, movie villains offer the best lessons in leadership. They’re evil, they’re corrupt and they’re downright just shitty people, but the leadership lessons movie villains provide have incredible value. Here are 3 exceptional villains that taught us how to be awesome at leadership, even if they didn’t mean to:

Villain #1: Voldemort – Harry Potter

Voldemort from Harry Potter

What was this snake-faced baddy good at? Getting results. This slippery Slytherin committed dozens (if not hundreds) of heinous magical crimes, orchestrated the assassination of major players in the wizarding community AND infiltrated and toppled the Ministry of Magic, AKA the government. One minute all is well in the wizarding community, then all hell breaks loose and Voldemort is the de facto president practically overnight. His team got in and got out before anyone even knew what was happening.

How does this school us on leadership? In Voldemort’s case, his organization lacked any kind of employee retention plan. He managed his followers through fear-mongering and coercion and honestly expected them to want to stay based solely on his intimidation factor.

They’re evil, they’re corrupt and they’re downright sh*tty people, but the #leadership lessons movie villains provide have incredible value. Check them out: Click To Tweet

79% of people who quit their jobs cite “lack of appreciation” as their reason for leaving.

Voldemort’s management style and leadership skills were particularly efficient in terms of getting results, but his organization completely fell apart once the going got tough. When Voldemort faced off against Harry Potter in the final assault on Hogwarts, Voldemort’s followers fled by the dozens when the tide turned against them. Sure, there were some truly loyal Death Eaters that stuck around till the bitter end, but Voldemort’s employee retention rate hit rock bottom the moment his face cracked.

Lesson Learned:

Leading through fear and cruelty can get fast results, but it kills any chance to build or strengthen relationships with employees. The moment your organization shows cracks or signs of bellying-up, your workforce will jump ship without a second thought. In other words, treat employees with trust and respect so that if you slip, they’ll be there to help pick the organization back up.

I mean, how can you even hope to retain employees when you give hugs like this:

Voldemort hug gif


Make it your mission to engage employees, not entrap them. If you’re working to make organizational changes, include employees and get their input! Host fun relationship-building activities or games. Get employees active with volunteer programs and special events. Creating more opportunities to get employees involved helps make them feel connected and valued to the organization.

A #leader that governs from a distance creates conflict & confusion no matter what. Who knew we could learn this from a movie villain? Find out more: Click To Tweet

Villain #2: Emperor Palpatine – Star Wars

Emperor Palpatine Star Wars gif

What was this decrepit, light-saber-wielding senator good at? Recruiting. Palpatine knew talent acquisition like the back of his wrinkly, lightning-shooting hands. He sensed Anakin’s potential and used reward-based motivation tactics to recruit him away from the Jedi. Even if it was technically considered poaching, Palpatine successfully acquired the most powerful apprentice in the galaxy.

The key takeaway from Palpatine’s lesson is talent acquisition is as much a leadership issue as it is an employer brand issue. Leaders must be able to convince top talent of their firm’s worth and the value of the talent’s position with the company. 70% of high-retention-risk employees say they have to leave their organization in order to advance their careers, while 81% of employees would consider leaving their current role for the right offer.

Honestly, this example is more about what the Jedi didn’t do to keep Anakin. The Jedi made it easy for Anakin to leave their order because they doubted his ability, shunned his concerns and stifled his ambition. In other words, top talent from one firm chose to leave. They decided to take a position with the competition because their original work environment was toxic. The competitor also offered a better experience that added to the talent’s professional development, making the decision to move much more appealing.

Lesson Learned:

First, poaching other companies’ employees is shady. That’s all I have on that point. Second, just because you recruit top talent doesn’t mean they’re going to be A+ superstar employees. They still need guidance and encouragement to improve and succeed. Additionally, you, as the employer, must keep the experiences coming and the challenges fresh. Otherwise, your talent will get snatched up by competitors.


Make efforts to provide opportunities that continuously challenge and encourage employee development. Switch up tasks and recurring duties to keep employees on their toes. Collaborate with your employees – Brainstorm ideas for development together.

Sauron – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Lord of the Rings Sauron gif

To be fair, I feel like I need to call out the bs surrounding this villain first. HE WAS PHYSICALLY IN THE MOVIE TRILOGY FOR A CUMULATIVE 20 MINUTES. If you don’t count the multiple 3-second cut scenes to the giant flaming eyeball, the dude had maybe one appearance in the entire series. And it was a 10-minute battle scene at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring.

That being said, what was this flamey eyeball god-demon-thing good at? Consistency. Sauron had command of legions of monsters, spirits and nasty creatures. Yet, he always seemed to have all his positions filled and his bases covered whenever he needed things done.

How does this school us on leadership? Unfortunately for Sauron, it looked like Mordor Inc.’s recruitment team hired just about anybody that stepped up for an interview. They had hundreds of thousands of warriors and in the end, they still lost. [Spoiler Alert] At the end of The Return of the King, after Sauron ate the big one his followers scattered like bugs running from a can of raid.

Things may have been different if Sauron had played a more integral part in his employee’s day-to-day operations. 65% of employees want more feedback. Maybe if he gave them constant feedback and actually showed personal interest and investment in their development they would’ve stayed loyal through the bumps in the road.

Lesson Learned:

A leader must be physically present in their employees’ lives to communicate effectively. A leader that sits and governs from a distance creates conflict and confusion. It does not matter how many employees they have to cover their bases. To explain Sauron’s leadership lesson further, it’s nearly impossible to engage employees and make them feel valued when they’re only viewed as a number to add to the ranks.


Schedule regular, frequent meetings with teams to keep everyone up-to-speed about goals and current projects. Give feedback as often as possible to make sure employees stay mindful about how they’re progressing. Then, put the process in reverse! Get feedback from your employees about how your leadership is helping or hindering your team.

To tie together the lessons these three Big-Baddies taught us, leadership is about more than just being effective. It’s about caring for your subordinates, your followers and your employees. Just because some leadership skills or methods produce immediate results doesn’t mean they will be ultimately successful in the long run.