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 Quotes in Ender’s Game
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.