Leadership Lessons from GI Joe

Russell A. Smith challenged me to watch GI Joe: Arise, Serpentor, Arise! (follow along at the link) and write about the leadership side of the story. Well, challenge accepted.

Some members of Cobra senior management, and their fetishwear.

The plot, for those of you not wanting to sit through two hours of mid-Eighties American cell animation, is as follows: Doctor Mindbender, a high-ranking and somewhat kinky member of terrorist organisation Cobra, has concerns about the leadership of the organisation by its current shrieky CIC, Cobra Commander. After a trippy dream involving a DNA helix, he decides the best thing for it is to manufacture a Cobra Emperor out of the DNA of various famous past leaders, gets Cobra senior management on side, and spends the next three episodes raiding a bunch of tombs, finally succeeding in producing an individual called Serpentor, of whom more later. GI Joe, allegedly the heroes of the story, singularly fail to prevent any of this happening (even though the Cobra operatives all repeat over and over in very loud voices that they’re after the DNA of historical figures, it takes the Joes several episodes to finally catch on). Owing to an intervention by Joe alpha male Sergeant Slaughter, however, Sun Tzu’s DNA remains uncollected; Doctor Mindbender manages after great effort to obtain Sergeant Slaughter’s instead, but is thwarted in including this in the mix as well. The implication is meant to be that the throughly insane and irrational being which results would have been less so had things gone according to plan, but, given that Sergeant Slaughter is hardly the most stable electron in the atom, one doubts the logic.

…and the ego of Norma Desmond.

It’s hard to know where to start with all this, but perhaps it’s best to begin with the observation that Doctor Mindbender is clearly an advocate of the behaviourist school of leadership: namely, that good leaders have certain traits, which can be acquired, and that acquiring these produces a good leader. Mindbender himself says early on that he intends his creation to have “the military genius of Napoleon; the ferocity of Genghis Khan; the leadership of Alexander; the evil of Ivan The Terrible.” Sun Tzu is of course included because it’s 1986 and every Yuppie worth their brick-sized cell phone is reading The Art of War and convinced, using the same fallacy as Doctor Mindbender, that it’ll make them a better manager. The rest of Mindbender’s wish list includes Montezuma, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Geronimo, as well as somewhat more dubious examples of leadership as Vlad Tepes, Rasputin, Erik the Red (I don’t know, maybe Doctor Mindbender thinks his creation should have a good sense of direction?) and Xanoth Toth-Amon (allegedly an Egyptian general, but actually a character in Conan The Cimmerian, probably the result of letting a group of English graduates loose on a cartoon series with few instructions other than “mention the new battle tank toy, don’t suggest Vietnam was a bad idea, and try not to include any naughty words”).

Sergeant Slaughter: warrior, motivator, and winner of the All Forces Dance-Off 1986.

However, let’s consider Cobra Commander’s leadership style. While he’s got issues with interpersonal relations, has problems inspiring loyalty among middle management, and really ought to be delegating his military leadership function, he has all the hallmarks of a perfectly good transactional leader. He motivates Scrapiron, Sergeant Slaughter and even Serpentor to do things for him over the course of the story (bargaining with them to do so– a classic transactional-leadership move). He has been doing a pretty good job of getting Cobra outfitted with cool planes, mini-tanks and battle androids thus far, and the only reason Cobra loses the battle at the start of the story is because Sergeant Slaughter appears to be a human mutant capable of smashing said androids with his bare hands, which Cobra Commander could hardly have anticipated. And at the end of the story, the main reason the Cobras lose their battle is that they run out of fuel and ammunition, such logistical considerations apparently being beyond Serpentor.

This rather suggests that what Doctor Mindbender is actually after is charismatic leadership, since this is the main trait that Cobra Commander lacks. It might also make sense of the more unexpected names on his wish-list, such as Rasputin (arguably not much of a leader, but famously popular with the Moscow chicks), and also why he thinks Sergeant Slaughter might make a good candidate for inclusion, since he’s the most charismatic member of GI Joe’s leadership team. And it has to be said, Serpentor certainly is charismatic, inasmuch as the Cobra members all seem irrationally inclined to follow him. The problem is that, as noted elsewhere on this blog, charismatic leaders can also be toxic, or, as in this case, mad as a bag of frogs.

General Hawk: Mostly he points at things.

Finally, it’s worth noting that leadership among Cobra’s opponents, GI Joe, is basically nonexistent. There are four official leaders: Hawk, in overall charge, Duke and Flint, who seem to run most of the on-ground activities, and Sergeant Slaughter, who one would expect would be Senior NCO but actually seems to be a bit of an anarchist. The former three characters don’t actually seem to do any leading, bar basic troop deployment. Sergeant Slaughter provides some leadership in that, as noted, the Joes find him charismatic, and he does force them onto a training programme at the start of the story which, we are told, puts everyone back on their game (somewhat belied by the fact that Cobra then score four easy victories in succession, but never mind).

However, for most of the story the Joes, Slaughter included, seem to operate very much on an individual or small-team basis, with no real need for leadership, making ad-hoc decisions and with leadership roles being similarly rough-and-ready. Nobody seems to have much respect for rank either. The same, incidentally, seems to hold true for their Russian counterparts, the October Guard, who make a cameo in Episode Three; I’m reasonably sure the tall dark and handsome one’s officially in charge, but since he barely does any actual leading, it’s hard to tell.

The secret of GI Joe is out: they may look like they’re a propaganda vector for the US military, but in fact they’re a small-scale anarchist-terrorist collective.

The Lori is loose!

My story “The Lori” is now up on Clarkesworld!

This one had an interesting genesis. I woke up one morning with the first line, “the problem with sentient battle tanks is their drivers” running through my head, and the story just unfolded from that line.

Click the link to read it for free.

And here’s a picture of the skull I bought to celebrate!

Best of British– Again!

More good publishing news. My story “Every Little Star” (the one line summary of which is, “Like Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but with virtual reality, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and lesbians”) will appear in this year’s Best of British SF from Newcon Press– the second year running that I’ve had a story in the collection! Pre-order this great volume at the link.

BSFA Vector Solidarity Salon #7

I’m going to be giving a reading this Thursday in the BSFA Vector’s Solidarity Salon! I’m on at 8:45, following Chinelo Onwualu at 8:15. The Facebook event page is here, and I’ll provide a link to the video after the event.

I’ll be reading “The Little Car Dreams of Gasoline,” which is my first published self-driving car story, and is a stand-alone prequel to my novel Driving Ambition.

 

The Colour out of Space Opera: Index

An index to my series of posts on colour, symbolism, style and space opera, featuring Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Star Wars (with guest appearances from all over).
Part One: What is a Space Opera?

Part Two: What is structuralist anthropology, and why should I care?

Part Three: Red And Blue

Part Four: Nature/Culture in Battlestar Galactica

Part Five: Blake’s 7 and the Colour Coded Universe

Part Six: The Anti-Hero’s Journey

Part Seven: White Hat Hackers

Part Eight: What Colour Is The Sky On Your Planet?

Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

Part Ten: The Faustus with the Mostest

Part Eleven: Some Call Me The Space Cowboy

Bonus: The Mandalorian

Conclusion

The Colour Out of Space Opera: Concluding Thoughts

So, by way of ending The Colour Out Of Space Opera, I’d like to offer a few general thoughts and takeaways from this, and a few directions you can pursue yourself if you’re interested in learning, or researching, more on this subject.

  1. Everything uses symbolism to make its point, and, because we’re in Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 [Review] – Otaku USA ...“Western” society (in this case, blatant ethnocentric shorthand for the UK and USA), we tend to get a lot of symbols in our popular culture that fit our own particular set of nature/culture oppositions. There’s a reason why I’ve steered clear of talking about Japanese space opera; it might be an interesting thing for someone with more knowledge of their particular culture to explore colour symbolism in that context.
  2. The way space opera uses symbols, particularly colour symbols, is linked to the job space opera has to do: to introduce casual viewers quickly to casts and scenarios in a way that doesn’t alienate regulars, to provide new and interesting alien planets on a weekly basis in a way that keeps costs down but doesn’t get the viewer saying “Vasquez Rocks again?” (by the way, shout out to Star Trek: Picard for using the actual Vasquez Rocks as a location).
  3. What Made Lexx Such a Great Cult Sci-Fi Series? | Den of GeekNature/culture: is a big trope that designers and directors exploit big-time, for its emotional significance in “Western” (op cit) culture, but it changes over time. In the sixty years that we’ve been covering here, we’ve gone from culture-good, to nature-good, and now we seem to be going back into culture-good (albeit with some interesting fusion symbolism in The Mandalorian, but it seems to be the only one so far). Arguably in 1990s space operas like Farscape and LEXX you had a period of we-can’t-tell-what’s-nature-and-what’s-culture, which is probably not too surprising, given that it was a decade when people were having to rethink a lot of pre-existing social categories (and, come to think of it, that might make a good bonus episode/coda to this series; comment if you’d like me to write one).
  4. Finally, historical-futurism goes back longer than most people realise, and the reason it works is for the same reason that the colour symbolism works: because we have sets of associations piled up in our cultural knowledge that mean we go to certain places when we see certain things. But they work best when you’re evoking a time period sideways, as it were: making us think of Westerns not through Western-style visuals, but through other symbols that evoke the same sort of ideas.

So, I’m going to leave you here with those four takeaways. Obviously one could go on much further, and I might do more pieces later on exploring in depth what particular series do with particular sets of symbols. I should also probably mention here that I have a book coming out in Obverse Book’s Black Archive series of Doctor Who monographs: it’s #43: The Robots of Death, and the reason I mention it here is because there’s a whole chapter on Expressionist design, historical-futurism, and how Doctor Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe made use of it throughout his tenure on the show. So if you like what you read, there’s more!

In the meantime: go out on your own, play with these tools, look at what the designers of your own favourite space operas are doing with colour and visual trope, and have fun with it.