Tour de Force

An Interview with Cass Sunstein

Star Wars is a modern classic: a tale of self-discovery, adversity, and triumph. Like all great works of art, it takes place in a moral universe where decisions can have cosmos-altering consequences. The eminent legal Scholar Cass Sunstein, author of The World According to Star Wars, sees the film and its sequels as holding key lessons for those faced with difficult decisions in the real world. Chief among them is the importance of personal freedom.

Flickr. Even the lowliest storm trooper has the power to change the world.

Flickr. Even the lowliest storm trooper has the power to change the world.

Octavian Report: Who, in your opinion, is the most successful leader in the world of classic Star Wars?

Cass Sunstein: Princess Leia! She knows what she’s doing, and she keeps her cool under pressure. Luke and Han are pretty good, and so is Obi-Wan, but Leia is the most successful of all.

OR: What quality made her succeed?

Sunstein: Alertness to her surroundings, I think. Whatever situation she finds herself in, she is able to have an immediate perspective on what paths might save her or the rebellion, or might move things forward. She obtains that perspective in small or intimate situations (including romance) and in very large or galaxy-scale ones.

OR: What was her most difficult task?

Sunstein: Well, it wasn’t so easy when she and her friends were getting crushed by those wall-crushing things. Escaping Jabba the Hutt was a bit challenging too.

OR: What is the definitional moment for her in the films?

Sunstein: Probably when she killed Jabba, using the very chains by which he bound her. That wasn’t the most important moment, but it may have been the most defining. It’s also a deeply feminist moment, by the way.

OR: The hero’s journey is obviously an important concept in your book and in the films: what is its relevance to people currently in positions of responsibility?

Sunstein: You always have freedom of choice, and you can and should choose the Light Side.

OR: How do the problems of that fictional universe relate to those faced by leaders in any field today?

Sunstein: Well, democracies are sometimes at risk of becoming less democratic, or even becoming authoritarian. Turkey may well be a case in point. Let freedom ring — that’s one of the major themes of Star Wars.

OR: Where would you recommend someone interested in learning the secrets to a leader’s success in that universe begin?

Sunstein: In that universe and in ours, Groupthink, by Irving Janis, is a strong candidate. I also have fondness for How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. And I might put Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow at the very top, though it isn’t about leadership in particular.

OR: Who is the worst leader you encountered, and why?

Sunstein: I’m not going to tell you! The best was President Obama.

OR: Does Star Wars offer any useful models for dealing with our frenetic, info-soaked world? (You cite Alan Moore’s idea of “rudderlessness” in the book.)

Sunstein: When you see patterns, they might not be there. There’s a lot of randomness in the world.

OR: If the work as a whole holds a single lesson for contemporary leaders, what would that be?

Sunstein: Again: Freedom is very important, and exercising it, and respecting it, are paths to the Light Side.

OR: Do Episodes 4,5, and 6 reflect, in your opinion, a particular historical moment?

Sunstein: Sure, in the sense that the Nixon administration and the Cold War were backdrops. But they transcend that moment. A lot of great work does that; Shakespeare, Milton, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Bob Dylan (roughly in order of merit).

OR: Who is your favorite character?

Sunstein: Han Solo.

OR: Where do you come down on Admiral Gial Ackbar?

Sunstein: Favorably. In my view, George Lucas can do no wrong.

OR: Who is your favorite character?

Sunstein: Han Solo.

OR: Where do you come down on Admiral Gial Ackbar?

Sunstein: Favorably. In my view, George Lucas can do no wrong.