“Who’s Ever Ready?” – Poe’s Leadership Development in the Sequel Trilogy

As someone who works with college students through a campus ministry, my favorite part of the job is leadership development. Every year I try to guide students to take steps forward along a leadership “pipeline”: taking risks, sticking with commitments, inviting others into a vision, being honest about past mistakes, and dealing with failure—all while doing so with a measure of humility. That’s why I’ve loved the recurring theme of leadership development in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, particularly as it relates to passing the baton to the next generation. There are many ways that we see characters grow in this trilogy, but perhaps the clearest development arc of a leader is that of Poe Dameron.

Whether it’s his risk-taking in The Force Awakens, his lessons learned the hard way in The Last Jedi, or his final maturation in The Rise of Skywalker, we see a continued path of development for Poe into a leader far beyond just another stereotypical flyboy or lone ranger. Poe’s steady growth as a Resistance leader, under the guidance of Leia and other mentors, is a stirring model for anyone looking for a clear picture of a leadership pipeline in action.

Basic Leadership Skills: Boldness, technical skill, and beginning to cast vision

In the opening of The Force Awakens, Poe Dameron is a commander and a skilled pilot, sent by Leia to retrieve a valuable piece of intel. Within the opening twenty minutes of the film, Poe exudes basic leadership skills such as boldness, the ability to take risks, and technical prowess. Thinking quickly, Poe entrusts the map to BB-8 when he realizes his capture is imminent. After his X-wing is disabled, he grabs a rifle and starts providing covering fire for the Jakku villagers. A few scenes later, as Finn helps him break out of First Order captivity, Poe quickly teaches him how to operate TIE fighter weaponry, and coaches him through the process of destroying some of the turbolasers. Throughout their escape, Poe does not denigrate Finn or doubt him, but instead affirms him. Thus the viewer is introduced to Poe as someone with the clear stirrings of leadership qualities: he takes initiative, exhibits proficiency in technical skills, and can quickly teach other individuals basic tasks.

Although Poe disappears for the middle act of TFA, he jumps right back into the action for the final one. Back at the Resistance base, Poe advocates for Finn to Leia—“Finn’s familiar with [Starkiller Base]”. It’s a small moment, but meaningful: so often leadership simply involves networking the right people to each other, and then stepping back and letting the process take over. Poe could have tried to share the information on Finn’s behalf, claiming credit, but he happily lets Finn take the lead with Leia. Later, leading the attack on Starkiller Base, he keeps his dialogue centered and encouraging, reminding Black Squadron of the big picture: “Yeah, we gotta keep hitting it! (…) Remember, when that sun is gone, that weapon will be ready to fire, but as long as there’s light, we got a chance.” Perhaps a bit cheesy, as far as dialogue goes, but it gets the job done. At the climax of the film, Poe bravely flies inside the very structure he’s trying to blow up, destroying it from the inside.

Thus in TFA, we see someone with the basic building blocks of a leader. Poe is bold and daring, willing to take risks for the sake of others and the broader mission. Moreover, he has clear technical skills, and is able to quickly teach those to others, whether it’s describing how to fire a TIE’s lasers or explaining how large Starkiller Base is. Lastly, Poe is able to quickly encourage and refocus the allies he’s fighting alongside, even in the midst of battle. If TFA were the only film to show Poe’s arc as a leader, it would be inspirational, but perhaps a bit basic. TLJ and TROS take his growth as a leader to the next level.

Intermediate Leadership Skills: Leading squads, learning from failure, and preserving those you lead

At the beginning of The Last Jedi, Poe leads another stunt to save the day: attacking a Dreadnought head-on. Since the point of this is simply to delay the First Order, Leia orders Poe to retreat once she learns the evacuation is complete. Her priority is the continued existence of the Resistance, not a token military victory that she knows will do nothing to dent the First Order’s overall forces. Unfortunately, Poe only sees the opportunity to take down a Dreadnought, and refuses to retreat—leading to heavy losses. 

“There were heroes on that mission!” Poe blusters to Leia after she demotes him. “Dead heroes. No leaders,” Leia corrects him. “I need you to learn that.” Unlike the First Order, which has limitless resources, it is crucially important for Resistance leaders to steward those under their care and raise them up to be the next generation of leaders. As Admiral Holdo says, “We are the spark that will ignite the fire that will restore the Republic. That spark, this Resistance, must survive.” I believe it’s this same dynamic that lies at the heart of Admiral Holdo’s dismissive attitude towards Poe. Holdo is surely aware of Poe’s incredible skills in an X-wing, but she knows that derring-do is not the right way to preserve the Resistance given their current tactical situation. For the second time in The Last Jedi, Poe has a choice: whether to sit back and accept his senior commander’s view of the bigger picture, or to attempt a flashy, riskier plan that will put him back in the center of the action.

Once again, Poe chooses action, supporting Finn and Rose’s plan to sneak aboard the Supremacy and disable the hyperspace tracker. Through the course of this doomed scheme, however, we see Poe take leadership in some new ways. He carefully listens to younger leaders explain their plan, and sends them on their way with the resources they need (coordinating with Lieutenant Connix to aid their escape). Later, he gathers additional co-conspirators who join him in mutiny after a failed attempt to win Admiral Holdo’s support for his plan. Say what you will about Poe’s mistakes here, but he is clearly willing to develop a plan, bring others into it, and risk his own reputation and life for it. It would be admirable, if it weren’t so risky to the overall Resistance. I can almost feel Leia’s frustration before she stuns him: Come on, you should know better by now!

Despite the mutiny, Leia and Holdo don’t seem to hold a grudge against Poe (perhaps they see a bit of themselves in him?). As Poe lies stunned on a gurney, Holdo gently touches his face and slyly nods to Leia, “That one’s a troublemaker—I like him.” “Me too,” Leia agrees. I might be reading too much into it, but I resonate a lot with this small exchange: two senior leaders smiling about a talented up-and-comer who has obvious potential but needs just a bit more maturing. Poe’s leadership skills are immensely valuable, if only he can grasp the bigger picture: preserving the Resistance is more important than immediate action. “[Holdo was] more interested in protecting the light than she was seeming like a hero,” Leia gently chides Poe once he regains consciousness. 

Finally, at the end of TLJ, Poe begins to understand this lesson. In an echo of Leia’s order to him at the start of the film, Poe orders Finn to retreat from his futile attack on the battering cannon. And later, when Finn wants to leap into battle to help Luke Skywalker, Poe stops him. “He’s stalling so we can escape. (…) We are the spark that’ll light the fire that will burn the First Order down. Skywalker’s doing this so we can survive.” Poe gets it! Finally, Leia can relax, knowing the future of the Resistance is in good hands. “What are you looking at me for?” she says. “Follow him!”

Perhaps Rose’s quote summarizes this leadership lesson best: “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” In our own world, too many underdeveloped leaders are consumed by the causes they lead, becoming bitter as they face resistance, or devouring the very people they lead for the sake of the mission. This type of toxic leadership culture ends up treating individuals as pawns, not worth protecting if there is some short-term profit to be earned or goal to be achieved. In contrast, leaders who are actually maturing are those who begin, like Poe, to understand that the future of the movement lies more in saving and growing one’s fellow travelers over the long haul, rather than simply using them up for a short-term utilitarian gain. Poe has advanced a lot as a leader by the end of TLJ; in TROS, Poe will complete his growth.

Mature Leadership: Being honest about one’s past, acknowledging weakness, and raising up other leaders

In TROS, we see Poe become the general Leia always saw in him: he owns up to his past, acknowledges his shortcomings, and leads other leaders. For the first chunk of the film, though, Poe is the same risk-taking, pep-talking, squad-leading commander we witnessed in the previous films. That’s great—the need for those basic leadership skills don’t go away. But his turn to even deeper maturity comes in the second act when he realizes he needs to go back to Kijimi, a system where he had betrayed and deserted his old spice-running friends. We see Poe weigh the cost of facing those he had wronged (and coming clean about his past to Finn and Rey) against the bigger picture—“If this mission fails, it’s all been for nothing. All we’ve done, all this time.” In both the Star Wars universe and our own, too many leaders try to bury shameful past secrets, or attempt to hide present biases, vices, and weaknesses. Of course, those areas of brokenness only fester in secrecy. Poe takes the big step of not only facing his secret shame, but doing so in the presence of those he loves. In the end, it’s not as painful or embarrassing as he fears it will be, and the risk opens up the possibility of reconciling with Zorii and his other former compatriots. 

Poe’s growth continues on Kijimi. After a tense reunion with Zorii, she offers him a chance for redemption, romance, and an escape from the destruction to come: by fleeing with her to the Colonies. Poe has the chance to save himself, but he turns it down. “I can’t walk out on this war. Not ‘til it’s over.” He then turns even more somber. “Maybe it is [over]. We sent out a call for help at the Battle of Crait. Nobody came. Everyone’s so afraid. They’ve given up.” This is Poe’s dark night of the soul, a level of vulnerability and lament that we haven’t seen from him before. Poe has been holding in these dark fears, but takes the time to share them with Zorii. Zorii, for her part, doesn’t try to take advantage of Poe’s dour mood, but encourages him: “I don’t believe you believe that.” Poe nods; encouraged or not, he’s committed to the Resistance, to the bitter end.

But Poe’s commitment to the Resistance isn’t necessarily enough. After a verbal spat with Finn on Kef Bir, Poe blurts out: “I’m not Leia!” Finn’s response doesn’t comfort him: “That’s for damn sure.” Up to that point, Poe could take comfort that the buck doesn’t stop with him and that Leia will always know what to do. Yet what happens when Leia is gone, and he has no choice but to take her place? All those fears—of failure, inadequacy, doubt—rise up within Poe as he sits in front of Leia’s shroud-covered body back at the Resistance base. Can he really lead the entire Resistance without Leia watching over him? Contrary to his prideful instincts in the previous films, Poe finally admits that he can’t be the leader the Resistance he needs: “I’m not ready.” He can’t simply defeat an empire all alone. But therein lies the secret, Lando tells him. “We had each other—that’s how we won.”

And this is the turning point, the final, most important lesson about leadership that Poe needs to learn: ultimately, his job as a leader is to empower other leaders. That’s what Leia, Holdo, and others have been doing for him this whole time, and their example pays off. Poe immediately asks Finn to come into command with him: “I can’t do this alone.” In an antithesis of the First Order’s philosophy, Poe knows that others have to be trusted, and empowered, to do the right thing to actually defeat the enemy. “The First Order wins by making us think we’re alone. We’re not alone. Good people will fight if we lead them. (…) What our mothers and fathers fought for, we will not let die.” And they don’t. Poe, along with Finn, Rey, Lando, Chewbacca, and dozens of other leaders, destroys the Sith fleet in poetic fashion: by targeting their central power systems (both personnel and equipment). Once Emperor Palpatine and General Pryde are gone, the First Order is leaderless and collapses under its own weight. The Resistance, on the other hand, is decentralized, chaotic, and chock-full of leaders—and it can’t be taken down quite so easily. This type of organizational structure makes no sense to the First Order: “It’s not a navy, sir, it’s just…people.” Yet like other mass movements we see in our world, the Resistance’s spark has turned into a raging bonfire, and no amount of opposing forces can ever snuff it out. 

Poe’s journey as a leader is complex and not entirely his own; he owes much to Leia, Admiral Holdo, Finn, Lando, and others. But throughout the sequel trilogy, he consistently takes steps towards humility and maturity, and the Resistance is better for it. Leaders in our own world would do well to apply the lessons of Poe’s leadership arc to both their own growth and to how they develop those under their care.