Mike Urick on A Manager’s Guide to Using the Force

Mike Urick, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Management and Operational Excellence and the Graduate Director of the Master of Science in Management program at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics and Government at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. In this episode I talk to Mike about his new book, A Manager’s Guide to Using the Force: Leadership Lessons from a Galaxy Far Far Away. Visit Mike’s webpage or connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.


This transcript is AI-generated and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:00] Welcome back everyone to the Department 12 Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Ben Butina and joining me today is Dr. Mike Urick, who is the Graduate Director of the Master of Science and Management: Operational Excellence and Associate Professor of Management and Operational Excellence at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics and Government at St. Vincent College. Wow! That’s a mouthful. How are you today, Mike?

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:00:25] I’m great. How are you doing?

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:27] I’m doing pretty well. And listeners probably will pick up on this, but I know Mike pretty well. We’ve known each other for quite a long time since before either one of us were in this academic racket, for sure. But it’s great to have you on the show.

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:00:41] It’s great to be here. I’m so excited you asked me to be here. Thanks so much.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:00:44] I asked Mike to be on not to talk necessarily about his day job, which is pretty cool in itself, but because he has recently released a book called A Manager’s Guide to Using the Force: Leadership Lessons from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. And it’s part of a series called Exploring Effective Leadership Practices Through Popular Culture, which I think is going to do exactly what it says on the tin.  This initial one is on Star Wars. The next in the series, as I understand it is about The Lord of the Rings, and there are others planned.

We won’t get ahead of ourselves too much there, but today I wanted to focus on A Manager’s Guide to Using the Force: Leadership Lessons from a Galaxy Far, Far Away, which I just finished reading and I enjoyed it very much. One of the things you said caught my attention and that’s about theory.

Learners that I work with in business, they tend to hate theory and they really just want,  “Let’s get into application, application, application, case studies, scenarios. But, don’t bore me with theory.” But one of the points that you make at the beginning of the book is you think students should be starting with theory. Could you just talk a little bit more about why that is?

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:01:47] I think a good analogy is to think about the force, right? From Star Wars, the force is about seeing patterns and, and letting you know, understanding what’s going on around you. Right. We need theory to be able to do that in the real world, we need that theory.

And I can appreciate certainly that there are a lot of people that are theory averse, and they don’t want to focus on theory so much, which is why this series is trying to make theory fun and entertaining and interesting. I love when people find out that I do research and work on leadership because sometimes I’ll get a comment with someone asking me, did you read this book? This guy was a CEO of such and such an organization. Great leadership stuff. Did you read it? This person was a commander in the Navy. Did you read this? And I’ll say no, I didn’t. Usually I’ll say it sounds great, but the problem is, is that that leadership worked for that individual.

And  I’m definitely never going to find myself leading a battleship. I’m probably never going to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but I’m going to be a leader in my own right. In some way, I’m going to be an influencer. I’m going to be a decision maker.

I need to understand my context. Okay, so what exactly worked for those individuals or whatever case study you’re looking at? It could work in your context, but we probably need to adapt it in some way. And how do we know how to adapt it? It’s by understanding the theory behind it first.

Some of my favorite theories I cover in the book, for example, even though it’s older, I love French and Raven’s classic bases of power. Because every time I look in and try and determine how is this person influential? How is this person a leader? If I see through that theory, I can clearly see what made that person a leader. I can clearly see how that person rose to a leadership role through their influence. I can understand how a leader is behaving because I can understand the theory behind it.

And that is why I think we need the theory. We need to make sense of the case studies. We need to make sense of the examples that we see, but only by understanding the theory, which is supported academically has been tested has been suggested as being good ways of viewing the world. We need to understand those ways.

We need to understand those paradigms, those viewpoints, so that we can make sense then of the actual, real phenomenon that we see. Oh yeah, here’s how I see the theory at work. And until we can get the theory, until we can understand that, we really can’t articulate and understand what makes a good leader or a bad, we have to really start at that basic theoretical level.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:04:12] The cliche is there’s nothing as practical as a good theory, but man, have I found that to be the case. I was being interviewed last week for a practicum class at Penn State and one of the students asked me a great question. It was could you share one theory that you use in your work that’s had a big influence on the way you work? And I honestly couldn’t come up with just one. And I explained to her,  it’s like asking a fish to describe water. There’s so many of them that I rely on all the time that I couldn’t just pick out one. But man, they really are practical, and understanding the theory first really helped.

I asked you that question first, because I suspect that some people listening to this podcast, when they heard the title of the book might’ve assumed that it’s going to be kind of a lightweight work. The reality is in addition to starting the book by explaining the importance of theory, it’s an incredibly well-supported book. The references in here are super impressive.

So if you’re at all worried about, is this a serious book? Let me assure you that, yes, it is as serious as a heart attack. The idea here is that we’re going to learn about theory in addition to learning how to apply it in our own lives and our own work. But we’re going to use examples from popular culture in this case, Star Wars.

So again, I think we tend to believe that examples should be as realistic as possible. And there’s even, you know, a little bit about transfer fidelity to suggest that the closer  the training environment or the learning environment is to the application environment, the more you can expect to transfer. So, why use star Wars instead of business case examples?

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:05:44] That’s a great question. And I guess I’m going respond to this in a couple of different ways.

One is to your earlier point of it being based in theory and based in a lot of references and not so much of a lightweight book, you know, I have found it to still be pretty easy reading. Of course I wrote it, but it’s still pretty easy reading, you know. Sometimes, and I’m sure you’ve done this Ben, where you write something and then you go back and you read it later and your kind of like, “Oh man, I didn’t mean that or this part. And it doesn’t quite reflect what I wanted to say.” I went back and read this one and I didn’t have that kind of cringe factor to this one. I thought, yeah, this is, this is still pretty solid. I’m still pretty comfortable with all this stuff.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:06:23] I think it was well-written too. I don’t mean to imply that it’s dry. Just that it’s serious. You’re not throwing out propositions like a popular business book about, you know, hey, make your bed and you’re going to be a great leader or Steve jobs did these three things and that magically transformed Apple.

Right. You know, you’re actually basing this on the research, but you write it in a way that’s very accessible to the average manager or leader out there.

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:06:47] And that was the intent. Where I was going with that was to say that it is kind of meant to disarm the person,  where, okay, I picked this book up.  I’m ready to get on a flight, I’m on a business trip. I just want to pick up a fun read that’s kind of serious, but also fun. This is perfect for that because it’s based in theory, it’s based in good academically supported business practices, but it’s presented in a way that I think is fun to do so and fun to consider.

But to your other point , what about the real world, though? The model of the series is start with theory, illustrate it through a fun example, and then encourage readers to figure out a way to apply that theory into their real life.

The goal is to eventually get to the real world to bridge that.  And to me, I’ve actually found pop culture as a better bridge to do that than some more traditional business cases. The reason being this, you in the classroom, especially in my grad classes, I’ll have students that work in HR. I’ll have students that work in I.T. I have students that work in manufacturing. I have students that work in healthcare. I’ll have students that are just starting their career out, students that have been in their role for 20 years or more. I have students from around the world, logging into classes from various countries. Not one real-world example is going to relate to all of them.

So if I bring up an example from manufacturing, the person that works in healthcare is saying, well, I wish you had one from healthcare. Cause that this one doesn’t apply to me. Or if I bring something in that’s more early career the person that’s going to be later career to say, ah, that doesn’t work for me because here’s what I’ve seen.

I’ve actually found that those real world business examples they’re useful. And I do use them. So it’s not to say when you take one of my classes, it’s all fantasy and sci-fi. That’s certainly not the case.

But they have their place just as pop culture has its place because no one person is going to have the same experience in their job in industry. I’m actually going to be able to reach more people because a lot of people have seen Star Wars, a lot of people have read The Lord of the Rings.

And I think, you know, we’re not gonna, I think announced just yet some of the other books that are upcoming we’re going to wait. I think to the first ones are out.  But you’ll see the rest of the series, which we have a great roster of authors signed up for the rest of the series signed on for the rest of the series. You’re going to see that some of these are very popular pop culture franchises that a lot of people enjoy and a lot of people are going to relate to. And that’s what you’re trying to do with an example. Right? I mean, whenever you’re trying to illustrate theory, you want people to relate to it. And so it makes sense then to use some sort of medium that people can relate to.

And the people have fun. If I’m reading a case study and dry to me, it’s not the industry that I care about, the eyes glaze over. It’s like, I’m just tired of reading about this, but if I’m watching Star Wars, as someone pointed out to me, “Oh, yeah. There’s leadership here. Check this out, check this out.” Yeah. That’s theory is now you know, as real as it can be from a sci-fi movie, but I understand it better. And now I’m able to apply it better.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:09:36] And it evens the playing field. To your point earlier, if you draw a case study or a scenario from a particular industry, then it kind of favors those in your audience or your class that have experience in that industry and disfavors others.

But you know, if it’s Star Wars, it’s like, none of us have actually been a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but most of us have seen the movie so we can kind of attack that from a point of equality.

And the other thing I think is interesting about this is that I have found that when I share realistic case studies or realistic scenarios, that students are just as likely to get wrapped around the axle on minor details of the operation that actually have nothing to do with the theory or the point that we’re trying to get across. So I like the fact that this sort of pulls it back from that as well.

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:10:24] The challenge is that sometimes students can get hung up on some of the details about elements of the pop culture, franchise, whatever you’re using, Star Wars, that don’t really  illustrate leadership or that are kind of off topic, but there’s always ways to steer that back.

But as a positive, you know, I was talking about my graduate classes, but in my undergraduate classes, I’ve [also] seen a lot of excitement about this.  Right before COVID, for example, I was on a spring break trip with several of our students and we were touring different businesses in Poland last February, early March.

 It was very early on in writing the book. And so I was still coming up with ideas, still figuring out what I wanted to do with it. And I was talking with some students about it and they were so energized about it. And it was so cool because to see a student while they’re traveling abroad, while they’re on spring break, to be energized about an academic theory or concept. I mean, that’s a win.

And to be able to talk about that stuff, you know, casually, that’s a good thing. And so that’s something else that pop culture can really do, I think, for our field.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:11:22] What are your wildest dreams for the book? If we were to have a follow-up episode to talk about the next book a year from now, and this thing just exceeded all your expectations, who would be reading it, what would they be doing with it?

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:11:34] In some ways my expectations are already exceeded because, I think that just doing something like this seems so off the wall and seems so outside of the norm that  just having the opportunity to be able to write this book and publish it is so cool.

My representative at Emerald, Fiona, is a great person to work with. I remember our first meeting, we were talking about a different project and I said, you know I liked that idea, but here’s a thought that I had, and I  pitched the idea of the first two books in the series, this one and then the Tolkein one, The Lord of the Rings one coming out in May and there was a kind of a pause and I was expecting to get laughed off our call. And she’s like, I love it. It’s great. I think this is a series. Let’s move this forward. We got to talk with some people, but let’s start, let’s start thinking about how we’re going to make this happen.

And. Okay. In a million years, I didn’t think I would have that kind of a response. So I’m really happy to have worked with such supportive people at Emerald, especially Fiona Alison at Emerald, who’s really supported the book. So just having this out there, I’m really thrilled with that now beyond that, obviously you want your book to do well and I just want people to read it.

I want people to read it and think about their own leadership style and think about how what I write about might be helpful to them. In terms of sales or things like that, I don’t really have that many expectations. I just want this to be impactful. You know, just like in the classroom, if I can impact one person, that’s a good class. If I could impact one or two or a dozen or more people with this book, that’s a good book. I just want people to be able to read this, reflect on it and. One, enjoy it, but also to think about their own leadership style and thinking about how what we talk about in the book might help their own context.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:13:16] Yeah. So what I’m hearing is you’d be happy with just a small Bahama island.

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:13:20] Yeah, definitely.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:13:21] I was smiling the whole time we were talking because just this past week was for many of us was SIOP. And one of the panels that I participated on was creative ways to get the word out about IO psychology. How do we communicate that to people? Because we seem to be stuck in an information deficit model that just says if we can make the PowerPoint slides simple enough and explain to people what we know in ways they understand, then they’ll believe what we believe. And unfortunately, the evidence about science communication doesn’t really support that.

And  the  follow-up question is always well, what’s the alternative? What else can we do? And I think that your book in the series is an answer to that question.

This is what else we can do. This is a new approach. This is something to think about,  to inspire your own efforts and ways of getting the word out. I’m sure that this isn’t the only pop culture series that could be done. And I’m sure that there’s a lot of things that we could be thinking about In addition to pop culture as a way to explain or demonstrate what these theories are, how they affect people in leadership other areas in, in IO psychology as well. So that’s one of the reasons I was so excited to share the book with my audience.

And I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon.

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:14:36] Oh, absolutely. Yeah. You know, I always love talking about this. I always loved talking with you, Ben. It’s always a great time to chat and, and it’s a great thing, but you’re right. You know, you mentioned about how pop culture is used for other things.

Really, what got me thinking about this too, there’s actually a series out there of pop culture in more general psychology terms. Dr. Travis Langley edited a book series and with general psychology, he covers things like Star Wars in that series as well. There’s also a series on philosophy in pop culture.

So I thought, you know, these series are kind of our need installments of each of those. I thought we could do something like that for leadership, and that would work. And that really got me thinking about some of the books and some of the concepts that we could cover in this series.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:15:23] Well, I’m glad we could pass the inspiration along. I’ll share a link to the page to buy the book in the show notes, along with links if you want to contact Mike with any questions or suggestions, maybe you’ve got your own pop culture idea and you want to join this series. And maybe The Sopranos wouldn’t work.

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:15:42] No, no, actually, no, not to my knowledge. Although we have, we have a backlog of of proposals right now and they’re all good. And so we’re trying to work through which ones we’re going to do next. And it’s really cool process.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.: [00:15:54] I’m glad to hear it. And thanks again, Mike.

Mike Urick, Ph.D.: [00:15:57] Thank you.