Ender’s Game

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Themes and Colors
Love, Empathy, and Destruction Theme Icon
Games, Computers, and Virtual Reality Theme Icon
Morality and Survival Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Control, Manipulation, and Authority Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ender’s Game, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Leadership Theme Icon

It’s no surprise that Ender’s Game deals extensively with the theme of a leadership. Almost all of the characters are in the military, so their very existence depends upon leading and following orders.

Early on, Card makes it clear that leadership can only be gained over time. When Ender arrives at Battle School, he has a hard time gaining his peers’ attention, let alone their loyalty—on the contrary, he’s bullied for his youth and because Colonel Hyrum Graff singles him out. It’s only over the course of the coming months, when Ender figures out who to befriend and how to undermine those who stand in his way, that he starts to gain respect.

It takes Ender years of study and practice before he’s fully ready to be a leader; that is, to command an army of his own. This implies another important thesis about leadership: leadership is a balance between tyranny and anarchy. During his early days in Battle School, Ender is traded from army to army, where he observes many commanders and learns from their mistakes. On one side of the “leadership spectrum” is Bonzo Madrid, the brutal, tyrannical, rigid commander who beats any soldiers who disobey him—even when their disobedience wins a battle. On the other side of the spectrum is Rose, the lazy, undisciplined commander of the Rat Army, who can barely convince Ender to obey any orders at all. From Bonzo and Rose, Ender learns what to do and what not to do. By the time he’s commanding Dragon, Ender knows that he has to be strict but not too strict, and to allow his troops to be independent, but not too independent.

A further consequence of Ender’s lessons in leadership is that he becomes isolated from his troops, and even his former friends. Ender knows that he’s not strong enough to win a battle all by himself, so he needs to train his “toon” leaders to think for themselves. Furthermore, he needs to build loyalty between toon leaders and their own soldiers. For this reason, Ender is severe and strict when he commands his entire army—he lets toon leaders deliver good news, and refuses to commiserate with his soldiers, even when he feels like doing so. In this way, Ender creates a balanced, well-organized army, in which everyone respects and admires Ender, but not to the point where they can’t think for themselves or obey other leaders in the middle of battle. One sad result of this is that Ender becomes enormously lonely: to be the best leader possible, he has to cut himself off from his old friends.

Ender’s genius as a leader is that he’s not dogmatic in his thinking—he’s willing to change his strategies when he’s wrong, always valuing his soldiers for their good work. Even so, the tragedy of being a leader, and the ultimate tragedy of the book, is that leaders (unlike their subordinates) bear the full responsibility of the destruction they’ve caused. In his final battles with the Buggers, Ender takes up a punishing, sleepless schedule so that he can study and monitor his enemies at all times. As a result, every military decision he makes is his alone. Even after Graff and Rackham insist that they, not Ender, bear the real responsibility for exterminating the Buggers—Ender thought he was fighting computer simulations, after all—Ender can’t help but continue to blame himself. The best leaders—like Ender—know how to pass on praise to their troops, but in the end they also accept all responsibility, both good and bad, for their followers’ actions.

Leadership ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Leadership appears in each chapter of Ender’s Game. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Leadership Quotes in Ender’s Game

Below you will find the important quotes in Ender’s Game related to the theme of Leadership.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said you liked this kid.”
“If the Buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Related Characters: Colonel Hyrum Graff (speaker), Major Anderson (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In this early quotation, two high-ranking officials in the "International Fleet" (IF) discuss the education they're planning for Ender Wiggin. Ender is a phenomenally brilliant young boy--his intelligence and leadership potential could make him the greatest military commander the world has ever seen. Graff and Anderson's strategy for Ender's education could be summed up as "survival of the fittest." In order to ensure that Ender becomes a first-rate commander (and defeats the biggest threat to humanity, the aliens known as Buggers), they'll bombard him with hostile opponents: rival students, bullies, aggressive teachers, etc. With these teaching methods, they hope to toughen up their prized pupil.

One of the key questions of Card's novel is how people rationalize cruelty and evil to themselves. In the case of Graff and Anderson, the answer is simple: the ends justify the means. Treating a small boy so cruelly might seem harsh, but—in the officials' view—the cruelty is outweighed by the threat of the Buggers invading once again.


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Chapter 4 Quotes

“I won’t lie now,” said Graff. “My job isn’t to be friends. My job is to produce the best soldiers in the world. In the whole history of the world. We need a Napoleon. An Alexander.”

Related Characters: Colonel Hyrum Graff (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Graff, the commander of Battle School, explains the scope of his assignment to Ender. Graff has been tasked with using his education program to produce the best military commander possible—a commander so brilliant that he'll be able to defeat the alien Buggers. Graff even admits that he lied and manipulated Ender before so that Ender would be more likely to attend Battle School. The fact that Graff is now being (mostly) honest with Ender signals that he has complete authority over Ender—he doesn't need to lie anymore.

On the surface, it's almost amusing that a grown man is waxing poetic about Napoleon and Alexander to a 6-year-old boy. Graff's quote presupposes a faith in "the system"—he's confident that his educational program can, in fact, produce great generals, and (just as importantly) predict which students have the greatest potential. Graff claims that he's finally being honest with Ender, but—as Card will quickly make clear—this simply isn't true. Even if Graff will tell Ender the truth at certain times, he'll still manipulate his young pupil in increasingly devious and elaborate ways.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“Listen, Wiggin, I don’t want you, I’m trying to get rid of you, but don’t give me any problems, or I’ll paste you to the wall.”
A good commander, thought Ender, doesn’t have to make stupid threats.

Related Characters: Bonzo Madrid (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

During his early days in Battle School, Ender is forced to serve under a older boy, Bonzo Madrid, in the Salamander Army. Bonzo is bigger and stronger than Ender, but—as the quotation makes very clear—he's an incompetent leader. Bonzo threatens to hurt Ender unless Ender obeys him without question. Although Ender acts like a good soldier—he usually obeys Bonzo's orders, even when they're foolish—he privately recognizes that Bonzo is incompetent.

The passage is also important because it shows that Ender is slowly teaching himself the art of leadership. Whether he serves with great commanders or bad ones, Ender always learns something. Either he learns what to do in a battle, or he learns what not to do. Ender's style of leadership, we can already sense, would be calm, controlled, and rational—he wouldn't threaten or hurt his soldiers unless it was what needed to be done.

“You disobeyed me,” Bonzo said. Loudly, for all to hear. “No good soldier ever disobeys.”
Even as he cried from the pain, Ender could not help but take vengeful pleasure in the murmurs he heard rising through the barracks. You fool, Bonzo. You aren’t enforcing discipline, you’re destroying it. They know I turned defeat into a draw. And now they see how you repay me. You made yourself look stupid in front of everybody.

Related Characters: Bonzo Madrid (speaker), Andrew “Ender” Wiggin
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Ender disobeys Bonzo's orders in a mock-battle at Battle School: Bonzo orders him not to draw his weapon, but Ender fires his weapon, turning a defeat into a draw for the Salamander Army. Here, Bonzo abuses Ender in front of his fellow soldiers. Ender notes that Bonzo is undermining his own power among the Salamanders: by proving that he punishes good soldiers, Bonzo is chipping away at his own troops' respect for him.

The passage is an excellent example of how Ender instinctively thinks in strategic terms—the long-term, really—at all times. Even when Bonzo slaps him in the face, Ender thinks ahead. His thought process also signals that he's putting together a model of good leadership. As far as Ender is concerned, a good leader rewards talent and initiative, while always remaining aware of how his troops view him.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“When the Bugger wars are over, all that power will vanish, because it’s all built on fear of the Buggers. And suddenly we’ll look around and discover that all the old alliances are gone, dead and gone, except one, the Warsaw Pact. And it’ll be the dollar against five million lasers.”

Related Characters: Peter Wiggin (speaker)
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Peter, still a teenager, tries to convince Valentine that the Earth is facing an impending crisis. If the Buggers are defeated in battle, the nations of the Earth will begin a scramble for power. The world's great powers have only united together temporarily out of fear that they'll be wiped out by Bugger warriors. If there are no more Buggers, there's no more unity—war is inevitable.

Peter's speech—which he uses as justification for his own plan to become the leader of the world—is interesting because it sheds light on Peter's own definition of leadership. Ender, a soldier and a general, thinks of a leader as a calm, collected figure who comes up with the best strategies. Peter, on the other hand, thinks of a leader as a political figure, someone whose principle job is to maintain a delicate balance of power between many rivals. Peter's speech also presupposes that human beings are basically selfish entities—they'll do whatever it takes to gain as much power for themselves as possible. We can guess that Peter sees himself in exactly the same terms—he's a power-hungry young man.

That’s how they think of me, too. Teacher. Legendary soldier. Not one of them. Not someone that you embrace and whisper Salaam in his ear. That only lasted while Ender seemed a victim. Still seemed vulnerable. Now he was the master soldier, and he was completely, utterly alone.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker)
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

As Ender becomes more successful at Battle School, he gets a reputation for being a "legend." Although there are some advantages to being seen as a legend—fewer people bully him, even if more people hate him in secret—Ender finds his new life lonely and isolating. Even the people who respect him deeply can't see him as a peer or friend: they think of him as an abstract role model, someone to be emulated and respected but not befriended. Ender's transition from frightened young student to intimidating general is especially poignant because he remembers a time when he had friends in Battle School, such as Alai (the student who whispered "Salaam" in his ear).

Ender's sadness in this quotation proves that Graff has been successful: Graff's goal, after all, was to alienate Ender from his fellow troops in order to make him focus solely on strategy. As Ender becomes more successful in school, the tortures and challenges Graff puts in his way have to become more elaborate: at this point in the novel, Ender's "challenge" involves facing this deep, existential sadness.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Ender wanted to undo his taunting of the boy, wanted to tell the others that the little one needed their help and friendship more than anyone else. But of course Ender couldn’t do that. Not on the first day. On the first day even his mistakes had to look like part of a brilliant plan.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin , Bean
Page Number: 161-162
Explanation and Analysis:

Ender is given control of an army at Battle School. On his first day commanding the army, he verbally abuses a young soldier named Bean, making fun of him for his size. Ender immediately regrets his actions and wishes he could take back what he said. But Ender also knows that his priority is developing his authority over his new group of soldiers. For this reason, he doesn't apologize to Bean, but instead moves on with his speech.

Ender's behavior in the scene illustrates the contrast between his cold, calculating manner and his secret compassionate side. Ender was a sweet child, but Graff and his other teachers at Battle School have trained him to be harsh, intimidating, and impressive. Yet in spite of the training he's received, Ender continues to feel the same sense of compassion he always did: Graff hasn't stamped it out of him yet.

In the second half of the novel, Card poses a question: which part of Ender's personality is stronger, his brutality or his compassion? Based on the quote, it would seem that Ender's brutality is stronger: he yells first, then feels sorry later. At the same time, though, Ender had to learn brutality from Graff—his compassion is innate. The fact that Graff has yet to get rid Ender's sense of compassion suggests that it, not Ender's brutality, is the stronger force.

I made sure they all noticed you today. They’ll be watching every move you make. All you have to do to earn their respect now is be perfect.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Bean
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Ender tries to justify his behavior to Bean, the soldier he verbally abused in front of his new group of soldiers. The justification Ender gives Bean is uncannily similar to the explanation Graff offered Ender at the beginning of the novel: like Graff, Ender is manipulating Bean's peers against him in the hopes that Bean will rise to the challenge and become a stronger, better soldier.

Ender's behavior toward Bean proves that Graff's training is working. Even though Ender hates Graff for hurting him and turning him against his friends, Ender emulates Graff's behavior reflexively—it's a classic example of "mimetic behavior" (copying someone else). Ender's actions also suggest that his definition of good leadership is changing somewhat. While he continues to aspire to kindness and compassion, he recognizes that there are times when he needs to be cruel and even abusive to his own troops, in order to build their loyalty. Ender has become the thing he hates most: a cruel, calculating commander.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“They need us, that’s why.” Bean sat down on the floor and stared at Ender’s feet. “Because they need somebody to beat the Buggers. That’s the only thing they care about.”
“It’s important that you know that, Bean. Because most boys in this school think the game is important for itself—but it isn’t. It’s only important because it helps them find kids who might grow up to be real commanders, in the real war. But as for the game, screw that.”

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Bean (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Battleroom
Page Number: 196-197
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Ender confides in his friend Bean—a young, ambitious soldier in the Dragon Army, whom Ender had initially mocked for his size. Ender tells Bean what he's learned about Battle School so far: the game, he believes, is fake, while war is real. Ender claims that most students in school are so competitive that they never fully grasp that the game is "just a game"—there are always students like Bonzo who are so competitive that they're willing to kill an opponent because of a win or loss in the Battle Room.

Ender's speech is ironic, as we'll soon find out, since in the end, there is no difference between the game and the war with the Buggers. Ender's mistake—his tragic flaw, you could say—is that he thinks he can preserve some of his humanity and compassion during Battle School; i.e., he can be a brutal commander during a game, and a normal human being for the rest of the day. Graff, knowing full-well that Ender thinks the Battle Room is just a game, will manipulate Ender into heartlessly annihilating the Buggers by lying to him about what is and isn't real.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Only then did it occur to William Bee that not only had Dragon Army ended the game, it was possible that, under the rules, they had won it. After all, no matter what happened, you were not certified as the winner unless you had enough unfrozen soldiers to touch the corners of the gate and pass someone through into the enemy’s corridor.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin , William Bee
Related Symbols: The Battleroom
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene—one of the few moments from the novel in which the perspective shifts away from Ender Wiggin—Card describes one of Ender's most ingenious victories in the Battle Room. A technicality states that an army can only win by launching five soldiers through the opponent team's side. Usually, armies interpret this rule to mean that after the battle, five soldiers must cross to the other side. Ender, knowing he's badly outnumbered and has no chance of winning, simply launches his soldiers before the game has begun.

The shift in perspective that takes place during this scene helps convey the ingenuity of Ender's plan. For once, we're not privy to Ender's decision-making process, and so Ender's final decision becomes all the more unexpected and dazzling. The scene is also a good example of how Ender "cuts the Gordian knot" (a legendary knot that was impossible to untie, but which Alexander the Great supposedly cut open with his sword)—i.e., rethinks the rules of the game in a creative way—when he's under pressure. Arguably his greatest talent as a leader is that he can twist the rules bit by bit. Graff knows about Ender's talent, and uses it to trick him into killing the Buggers.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Forget it, Mazer. I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules, if you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly—I’ll beat you unfairly first.
In that final battle in Battle School, he had won by ignoring the enemy, ignoring his own losses; he had moved against the enemy’s gate.
And the enemy’s gate was down.

Related Characters: Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (speaker), Mazer Rakham
Related Symbols: The Battleroom
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

In the novel's climactic scene, Ender faces an opponent (which he believes to be a computer simulation) more dangerous than any he's ever seen. Badly outnumbered, Ender isn't sure how to react. After a moment's thought, he decides to "cut the Gordian knot" once again. Ender decides to "win" the game by breaking the rules; sacrificing huge chunks of his own army in order to exterminate the Buggers at their source. Ender has the creativity to break the rules because he remembers the un-winnable battles he won in the Battle Room by breaking similar sets of rules.

The tragedy of Ender's decision is that he's willing to exterminate his opponents because he's convinced it's "just a game." In reality, though, the game is real. Thanks to Graffs' deceptions, Ender has been commanding real troops against a real enemy, and by winning the battle, he's won the Bugger War forever.

Ender's "victory" in this scene proves how well his education at Battle School has taught him to think of violence as a mere simulation. Although he's a uniquely compassionate, loving boy, he never has any qualms about sending troops to their deaths or murdering millions of Bugger opponents—but this is only possible because he's convinced that the game and the real world are separate, and that he's participating in the former.

In a broader sense, though, Ender's defeat of the Buggers illustrates how completely the IF commanders control him. After decades of running tests on their prized pupil, Graff and his colleagues know exactly how Ender's mind works. They know when he'll keep pushing, and when he'll crack under pressure. Ironically, "cracking under pressure" is exactly what Graff wants Ender to do in this scene:  Ender inadvertently exterminates the Buggers because he's sick of battle simulations, and wants a break.

Graff lies to Ender about the reality of the game for two reasons, one kind, one selfish. Graff wants to protect Ender from the guilt of consciously choosing to murder the Buggers—a decision that no single human being could possibly make. At the same time, Graff lies to Ender because he wants to make sure that Ender completes his assignment instead of compassionately refusing to commit mass murder. It's cowardly of Graff to place the burden of genocide on Ender's shoulders, and—as we'll soon see—the fact that Ender didn't know the game was real doesn't make him feel any less responsible.