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About Leadership and Lessons from Star Trek

Maya Brahmam's picture

Alex Knapp wrote a blog on Forbes earlier this month on how James T. Kirk of Star Trek embodied good leadership lessons. This  got me wondering whether there was anything we could learn differently about leadership from Kathryn Janeway  (fans of Star Trek will recall she was the captain of the USS Voyager).

So with a nod to Knapp and a bit of tongue in cheek, here’s my take on the five lessons of leadership from Jim and Kathryn:

1. Never Stop Learning:  Knapp points out that Kirk was “a walking stack of books” and picked up and retained knowledge that served him well. Knapp exhorts us to never stop learning: “The more knowledge you have, the more creative you can be. The more you’re able to do, the more solutions you have for problems at your disposal.”  Janeway never stopped learning, she took chances and included members of new species in her crew, such as Neelix, who would help her understand the Delta quadrant. In addition, as the first and only Starfleet captain in the Delta quadrant, she took huge risks to learn about new species. Most famously, she risked her ship and crew to study the Borg so she could understand how to defeat them.  Janeway Takeaway: Knowledge is key to survival, and so it is worth taking risks to learn.

2. Have Advisors with Different World Views: According to Knapp, Kirk benefited from having two advisors, McCoy and Spock, who embraced totally different world views and were often at odds in terms of their advice to Kirk.  This demonstrated that Kirk was a confident leader, as weak leaders often surround themselves with “yes-men.”  Knapp concludes: “Organizations that allow for differences of opinion are better at developing innovation, better at solving problems, and better at avoiding groupthink.” Janeway, faced with a desperate lack of man power, has to integrate her crew with a group of Maquis rebels, whom she was seeking to capture before her ship and theirs got sucked into the Delta quadrant. She forges an alliance with the captain of the Maquis, Chicotay, who becomes her first officer. Together, they weather many internal conflicts to forge a crew that follows Starfleet principles – in particular, members of the Maquis crew were furious when Janeway blew up a device that could get them home so that she could protect an intelligent species, the Ocampa. Janeway Takeaway: Bring on board different points of view and build alliances, but don’t abandon your core values.

3. Be Part of the “Away Team”: Whenever an interesting or challenging mission came up, Kirk was always willing to put himself in harm’s way by joining the Away Team. Knapp says, “It’s sometimes easy to trap yourself in the corner office and forget what life is like on the front lines. When you lose that perspective, it’s that much harder to understand what your team is doing, and the best way to get out of the problem…” This connection built Kirk’s credibility with his crew and also gave him a sense of the situation on the ground. Janeway like Kirk was always interested in Away Missions but, given Voyager’s isolation in the Delta quadrant, she sometimes deliberately put herself in dangerous situations to find new sources of food and fuel.  Janeway Takeaway: Leaders need to lead and inspire the troops, particularly when the going is tough and people are worried about their survival in hostile territory.

4. Play Poker Not Chess: Kirk was more a man of action than an intellectual. As Knapp tells it, in the midst of a battle, “Kirk asks Spock for options. Spock replies that the Enterprise has been playing a game of chess, and now there are no winning moves left. Kirk counters that they shouldn’t play chess – they should play poker. “Knapp concludes, “Chess is often taken too seriously as a metaphor for leadership strategy. For all of its intricacies, chess is a game of defined rules that can be mathematically determined. .. A far better analogy to strategy is poker, not chess. Life is a game of probabilities, not defined rules. And often understanding your opponents is a much greater advantage than the cards you have in your hand.”  Janeway was an accomplished pool player, but in the Voyager “Cloud” episode, she chooses to hide her expertise at first and surprises her crew with her skill.  Janeway Takeaway: Pool is a game of focus and aim. Know your endgame before you engage your opponents.

5. Blow Up the Enterprise: Kirk’s first love, by Knapp’s account, was the Enterprise, yet in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, he chose to destroy it to defeat the Klingons and save his crew. Knapp notes, “We are often, in our roles as leaders, driven by a passion…But no matter how much that passion burns within us, the reality is that times change…And there will come times in your life when that passion isn’t viable anymore. A time when it no longer makes sense to pursue your passion…” Janeway understood this concept and went one further: She blew up a future/alternate version of herself to save the people she loved on Voyager and to get them home safely. Janeway Takeaway: Do whatever it takes to forge a new path that is fulfilling.


Picture credit: flickr user Tiger Pixel

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