Delegation Leads to Shirking, Shirking Leads to Failure …

14 February 2013, 0949 EST

and Failure leads to Fear, Anger and all that Stuff.  In the renewed discussion of the Battle of Hoth and other failures of the Galactic Empire, there is a running theme throughout many of the posts: how does a leader get the underlings to do what they are supposed to do.  Given the affinity between the dark side of the force and Principal-Agency theory,* it is somewhat surprising that nearly all of these analyses have been atheoretical and have ignored the most applicable framework.

As the great Jedi Mace Windu once said, it is principals and agents all the way down.  The Emperor is the boss, who delegates to Vader.  Vader often serves as the proximate principal, delegating some of the authority delegated to himself to various agents, including Admirals who he subsequently force-chokes, and on and on.  The basic problem in P-A is that the agent often has more information about what is going on than the principal.  When the principal is running a galactic empire, this is more likely to be the case.  Sure, the Emperor can get some information via the dark side of the Force, but there are limits to this.  As a result, his agent could be (and often is) conspiring against him.  This problem of hidden information facilitates shirking–which does not always mean doing less than what the principal wants but often more.

How do principals address this challenge?  Well, there are four primary means: selecting compatible agents, defining the discretion they have, engaging in oversight and providing incentives/sanctions (see forthcoming book on NATO-Afghanistan in late 2013).

As the previous entries in this discussion at Wired and now at Duck indicate, the principals here often have limited choices of agents.  How many folks are left that can use the force well and might be bent to the dark side?  Given how well Order 66 was carried out at the end of the Clone Wars, not too many potential agents remain for Palpatine to employ (he was also pretty willing to sacrifice his previous apprentices–Darth Maul and Darth Tyranus).  Vader is pretty much the only game in town until the younger Skywalker can be converted.  So, the Emperor has to go to war with the agent he has, rather than the agent he wishes he had.

Over the course of the movies, the Emperor alters how much authority Vader has.  After his repeated failures at Hoth and Bespin, he finds himself restricted to overseeing the second death star’s construction (see Crispin’s take).  This shows that the principal has learned to change the “delegation contract” to restrict the discretion the under-performing agent has.

The Emperor and Vader demonstrate very different patterns of oversight.  The Emperor is in frequent contact with his agents, making sure that they stay within his intent.  Vader, on the other hand, is actually quite lax.  While Admiral Ozzel is planning the attack on Hoth, Vader is snoozing away.  Only when he checks on the plans as the attack is begun does he realize that Ozzel planned poorly.  Why did Vader not oversee the operation, ask questions about the plan, and revise accordingly?  Perhaps the classic P-A analogy of police patrols vs fire alarms is apt, as Vader responded to problems after they arose, whereas the Emperor was constantly trying to watch his agents (including sending Vader to oversee other agents).

Imperial oversight illustrated here.

The last remaining tool are incentives–do the principals provide rewards for agents who behave well and penalties for agents who behave poorly?  This is where Vader does better than the Emperor.  The Emperor repeatedly kills good behaving agents because of his long game–Count Dooku to help Anakin along the dark path, he tries to sacrifice Vader to get Luke on the dark side, and so on.  Why should his agents do the Emperor’s bidding if they know that they will be killed regardless of performance?   Vader, on the other hand, may overreact a tad, but he saves his force-choking for those that have already under-performed.

To be sure, the Rebels had their own P-A problems: they could not be choosy about agents, so farmboys and smugglers were welcome.  Consequently, their agents were a bit hard to control, especially Luke who would fly off to unauthorized locales to meet with strange disseminators of old-school training and then quit training early to hang out with his friends.  However, Oversight was easier as well for the Rebellion, since there were far fewer rebels to oversee, especially after the Battle of Yavin reduced the number of pilots most dramatically.  The Rebel Alliance did manage to provide incentives to encourage agents to behave well: cash, pretty princesses (yes, I am suggesting that Leia manipulated the men around her with her pulchritude, handing out kisses to any nearby aspiring hero, related or not), quick promotion (Commander? Skywalker, General? Solo, etc.), and shiny medals (well, to the humans, Chewie is still owed a medal).  Moreover, forgiveness can sometimes work better than harsh penalties, as the formerly traitorous Lando Calrissian performed above and beyond the call of duty at the Battle of Endor.


* In a grad school in a time long ago and far away (UCSD in the early 90’s), the students considered the main proponent of P-A theory to be of the dark side, so much so that this professor once wore a Darth Vader mask to a defense (dissertation or comprehensive exam, I forget which).