22 Leadership Lessons From Star Trek TV
Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Dec 22, 2015
All of the Star Trek incarnations lead to being my favorite TV show of all time. That I’ve never written a total leadership post about it makes me want to smack myself in the face. I wrote an articles saying we aren’t the Borg, and I was inspired to write a post on ethics after reading a book about the Ethics of Star Trek. I also wrote an article on LinkedIn on how Mr. Spock changed my life after Leonard Nimoy passed away.
Enough of that. It’s time to talk about some leadership lessons we all should have learned from the 5 different TV shows and captains of Star Trek. And since today is the 22nd of the month that’s why I’ve written 22 lessons… helps to keep things on track.
1. Leadership is about perspective.
Each of the 5 captains had the same morality and perspective when they first got into leadership positions. Even though all kept their basic morality, their perspectives changed based on their situations. For instance, Captain Kirk and Captain Picard were able to pretty much keep their perspective intact throughout their series. Captain Janeway had to change hers when they were thrown into a different quadrant, sometimes partnering with mortal enemies. Captain Sisko had to take on the mantle of the leader of a religion he didn’t want to keep the peace. And in the last two seasons, Captain Archer had to become more ruthless and demanding, sometimes cruel, to save both the lives of his crew and protect his society.
Sometimes you have to be ready to change your perspective on what’s important and critical, what needs to be more immediate than something else, and whether certain people are as important or useless as you might believe.
2. Sometimes you have to break the rules
Starfleet had a credo known as the Prime Directive. Breaking it could have any leaders thrown out of service. Yet, each captain had to break the rules of the Prime Directive multiple times, although they had it as part of their moral base. Sometimes they did so out of compassion; sometimes they did it to save lives.
Not all rules make sense. If there are some that hinder your operations or don’t seem fair to employees and you can alter them, you just might have to do it.
3. Your procedures must be precise
Even though each captain encountered things that were out of their control, they always followed each step of procedures first because most of the time that’s what worked. When they didn’t work then it was time to modify things.
If you’re trying to correct things and don’t have a procedure to follow each time, you’ll be jumping around, wasting time instead of finding out if you already have a solution based on precise processes. Time can be your friend or your enemy; proper procedures help things move along better.
4. It helps to know multiple facets of what’s part of your responsibility.
Every single captain knew how to pilot the ship if needed. Every single captain knew almost as much as the chief engineer when it came to the engines. Every single captain could man weapons when necessary. It wasn’t as important for them to do it all as to know as much about it all as possible because emergencies come up, and the more they knew the more they could help.
5. It helps to know history
There’s an old quote that history always repeats itself. Every captain not only knew the history of Starfleet but the history of all other types of previous battles and civilizations of their own planets and the planets of others in Starfleet. It helped often because it gave captains tactical ideas that they could either use or dismiss because of the knowledge they had of what came previously.
Good leaders will try to know as much about the job history of previous leaders that did the same job they do now, as well as try to learn processes the department had previously tried and discarded. They should also always remember their own past successes and “experiments” to help guide them as they push forward. If it applies, they should read historical books that relate to what they do because there are always lessons in history, no matter who’s history it is.
6. You’re allowed to be passionate about something
Captain Sisko was passionate about baseball. Captain Janeway was passionate about Leonardo da Vinci. Captain Picard and Captain Kirk were passionate about multiple things outside of Starfleet. The thing about work/life balance that’s most true is that one can’t always think about the job. We all need some kind of release, to have fun and refresh the mind.
7. Sometimes you must be vulnerable to be effective
Captain Kirk often wore his heart on his sleeve. Captain Picard sometimes had to show his humanity when trying to fulfill his obligations to Starfleet. Captain Janeway had to become both friend and part of the family every once in a while since she & her crew were so far away from home. There’s no loss of honor when you can’t be strong and powerful every minute of every day. Life gets in the way; that’s why it’s called life.
The same thing goes for leaders in business. No one is always in control. Sometimes the job calls for compassion and commiseration. Sometimes it calls for you to be a counselor, coach or mentor… even a friend.
8. Always see life as an adventure
The overall goal of starship captains was to go out into space, see what they could see, hopefully meet new species and have all sorts of adventures. Sometimes it backfired and became dangerous, but overall it was always a learning experience.
Boredom doesn’t suit anyone, not even management level people in organizations. See the job as an adventure, try new things, engage other directors, learn new things and enjoy your work.
9. Fortune often favors the brave
It was a rare thing for any of these captains to sit around waiting for things to happen. They all knew when to attack and when to withdraw, but the one thing each one was capable of was making a quick decision. Because of their training, most of the time their decisions were correct, or at least the best decision at the time.
Trouble rarely just goes away. If something is broken, whether it’s equipment or procedures, leaders that benefit the most are those who can make quick, decisive decisions. Even bad decisions can be fixed later.
10. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one
Okay, this line came from the movie Wrath of Khan, but the sentiment came directly from the original TV show and was manifest in every other show afterwards. Captain Kirk was always willing to give up his life for the crew and his ship. Sometimes he had to order his subordinates not to interfere with his sacrifice.
I’m not saying every leader in business needs to sacrifice their lives for someone else’s. However, sometimes you have to be ready to stand up for those who report to you against other directors, including C-suite leaders. You might not succeed, but if you won’t try to support those who report to you then why should they support your efforts to be as good as possible?
11. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations
Star Trek has always been the most diverse show on TV, even if the diversity was because of a lot of alien races. Every race that was a part of Starfleet had scientists, musicians, warriors and captains. No one was excluded because of race or gender. Every leader in every business needs to embrace that.
12. Delegation might be your best friend because you can’t do it all
At #4 I mentioned that the captains could pretty much do it all if called upon. However, starships were pretty big, so it helped to have a large crew that could handle their particular jobs, and supervisory personnel that knew almost as much (sometimes more) as the captain so they could fill those necessary roles.
Sometimes managers fall into the trap of doing the work that’s assigned to others. They have their own jobs to do, and if those who report them are trained well, they can delegate those other responsibilities so they can do what they’re supposed to do.
13. It’s okay to have a social life outside of work
At #6 I mentioned how each captain was passionate about something else. On some of these ships, when off duty the captain could become one of the crew and do something like play poker, watch movies, participate in concerts, etc. Captain Picard had a lady friend for a short period of time and Captain Sisko had a girlfriend as well. Captain Kirk… well, he was Captain Kirk! 🙂
14. It can’t always be about the money
None of the captains did what they did because the job paid well. Neither did any of the people who reported to them. They all found the job they did exciting and interesting, and they found other things to intrigue them as well. The money, or reimbursement, helped them do some things outside of the job from time to time. But most of them enjoyed their work immensely. Who wouldn’t love that?
15. You need to acknowledge that you’ll never know everything that’s going on with the people around you
On Deep Space Nine, one of Captain Sisko’s officers also had allegiance to another leader, someone from her planet who sometimes had a different goal than the captain. On Voyager, there was a serial killer. On Enterprise, there was a saboteur. Eventually these alliances were discovered and addressed, but in a couple of situations they caused some major harm… luckily, none of it everlasting.
Even with the best of intentions as it pertains to policies and procedures, leaders never know what’s going on in the minds and lives of every one of their employees. That’s why you can never take anything or anyone for granted and must always be as alert as possible. You just never know when someone will surprise or impact you or your department in a negative way.
16. Sometimes you have to abandon a cause to have a chance to come back and rectify things
On Deep Space Nine, Captain Sisko had to vacate the premises when they were being overrun by another alien race that used to control it. He thought about staying and fighting, but deep down he knew he had to retreat, plan and strategize, and get more support before going back and taking care of business.
Everything you do as a leader isn’t going to work. Pushing through without a plan to change things is just being stubborn. Be ready to stop, look at it again, and either try again or try something else.
17. You have to learn how to keep an open mind
A situation every captain encountered was where something looked like one thing and ended up being something else. Captains Archer and Janeway joined forces with one group against another group, only to realize that they had picked the wrong sides after looking at things again. Captains Kirk and Picard were in position to take the life of an adversary before thinking about the situations again and realizing that maybe their initial interpretations were incorrect.
Even the worst sounding plans might be the right thing to do. Never immediately discount anything unless it hurts either the organization or a lot of people.
18. There’s always a place for logic
Although each captain had their own issues to deal with, and their thought processes differed in general, each captain used logic of some type to help them make their decisions. Unless things were critical, none of the captains ever made kneejerk reactions to anything, and if they had the time they always discussed the issues with their leadership staff.
Don’t do things “just because”. Think about them, have an idea of what you expect will happen, think about it again and then put it into play.
19. Sometimes the most unorthodox ideas our best
On the original Star Trek, Captain Kirk overcame a superior alien force by bluffing about a superior weapon that didn’t exist. It made the potential enemy wary and ended up giving both parties a chance to talk things over and come to a peaceful arrangement. On Next Generation, Captain Picard tried to help his android 2nd in command learn more about humanity and compassion by recommending he get a pet.
Every once in a while you’ll find that the normal solutions aren’t getting the job done. In those situations it’s time to think outside the box and try something unorthodox. Even if it doesn’t work it usually spurs other ideas to try, and eventually one of them will work.
20. It’s great having a lot of knowledgeable people around you so you can hear all kinds of ideas and make a better decision.
Captains Picard, Janeway and Sisko always listened to the ideas of others around them, even those who weren’t senior staff, so they could make the best decision possible. As a leader, you know you don’t know it all, and often the people who do the work are your best resource for solutions.
21. As best as you can, never leave anyone behind
That’s always been a military credo, and even though Starfleet wasn’t supposed to be a military operation, they followed military procedures to do their job. When someone was killed during an operation, if there was a body they always took the bodies back with them instead of leaving them alone on an alien planet, unless there were extenuating circumstances.
It won’t be that dramatic in business, but the equivalent is to never throw an employee under the bus to save your skin, never step over an employee and take their ideas, and always give credit where credit is due.
22. At the end of it all, the captain makes the final decision and lives with the consequences of those decisions.
All the captains did what was necessary to protect their ships, crew and the organization that sent them into space. Sometimes people got killed, sometimes ships got destroyed, and sometimes they violated the Prime Directive and got called on it. More often than not, even when bad things occurred, better things came out of it for the majority. Captains might have had to live with a lot of bad things on their mind after the fact but they also knew they only did what was necessary, and they always stood up for their decisions, right or wrong.
True leaders do the same as it regards their employees. If an employee goes off the rails that’s one thing. If something bad happened but employees followed the rules and procedures, or followed the leaders directives and things went wrong, leaders need to accept the blame and responsibility and deal with those consequences.
Leadership can be like poker, the right cards don’t always come up. In poker you don’t always bet on the best hand, but the best outcome potential. It’s the same with being a leader.