If you’re a Star Trek fan like myself, then you know this week marks a historic milestone for this science fiction cultural phenomenon. More specifically, how this Thursday, September 8th marks the 50th anniversary of the airing of the first episode in this iconic, internationally renowned television series.
Whether you’re a fan of the series, or sci-fi in general, or not, you have to admit it’s an impressive feat for a series made literally half a century ago to have given rise to four television spinoff series (with a fifth TV series now in the works), along with 13 movies, including the recent reboot series of which my daughter Alya is a big fan.
Now while I imagine much will be written and spoken this week regarding the enduring appeal of this show, there can be no doubt that a big factor behind its ability to continue to garner new fans decades after its series run is because of its earnest desire to showcase our collective humanity at its very best.
But there’s another aspect of this popular franchise that we can also appreciate and that is some of the lessons we can learn about how to be the kind of leader who not only inspires the best in others, but who also demonstrates a sense of clarity about who we are and what we’d like to achieve.
To that end, here are 4 important leadership lessons we can learn from Star Trek to improve the way we lead our team and organization.
1. You have to care about your people as much as you do about your mission
With a show as old as the original Star Trek series, it’s only natural that certain presumptions are made about the show and its characters that are not necessarily reflective of what was really shown on the series. One example of this was how in recent years, people began to think of Captain Kirk as being this action-oriented leader while his more recent, modern counterparts in subsequent TV sequel series were the more thoughtful, cerebral type.
While there certainly were more fight sequences in The Original Series as compared to the ones it gave rise to, the truth is that one thing that was ever-present in Kirk’s character was how his primary focus was on his crew. While the most obvious example of this can be seen in various episodes where Kirk faces a threatening adversary and barters his own life in exchange for the safety of his crew, the most evocative example of this is seen in those moments where he kneels over the body of a lost crewman.
Unlike his contemporaries who absorbed crew losses as new data to reformulate their strategy, Kirk never shied away from letting others see that he’s taking this loss personally, regardless of how well or how little he knew them.
But he also demonstrated that sense of care and concern in how he pushed his crew to do better; to challenge themselves to rise above the challenges before them because he believed in their potential to be more. That’s why the stories in this series remain timeless – it’s not about the technology, but about the characters and how they challenged one another to be more than the sum of their respective skill sets.
So while Kirk’s character might exude that assured confidence we’d all like to feel as leaders, his example also exemplifies this first important leadership lesson: as leaders, it’s our job to care about those we lead; that we help our employees to learn and grow [Share on Twitter].
2. It’s not about being right as it is doing right by those you lead
One of the more impressive elements about Captain Kirk and how he approached his leadership was how he never had an issue with showing his crew that they were smarter than him; that they held the answers that will help him to solve the issue standing before them.
It’s impressive because when we think about the fact that this show aired during the 1960s, it’s amazing that people would buy into the idea that others would follow a leader who didn’t subscribe to the command-and-control style of leadership, but to one that focused more on how to empower those around you.
In The Original Series, the strength of Kirk’s leadership was not in the expanse of his own knowledge or expertise, but in how he was able to guide, support, and at times push his crew to deliver on their full potential.
But Kirk took things one step further in how he never hesitated in admitting that he got things wrong. In numerous episodes – typically around the midway point – the strategy Kirk had planned to help his crew escape imprisonment or circumnavigate a deadly foe would end up failing and Kirk would have to seek to advice of his trusted crew to help him figure out what to do next.
The fact that these mea culpa moments were treated as a normal response from Kirk revealed an important truth behind why Captain Kirk earned such a high degree of loyalty from his crew – Kirk wasn’t concerned with any scorecard detailing how many times he got things right or wrong. Instead, his focus was on how to best serve his crew and their mission.
And this brings us to the second important leadership lesson we can learn from this iconic series: to bring out in the best in others, leaders need to focus on doing right and not on being right [Share on Twitter].
3. Even the best leaders feel vulnerable about not having all the answers
Arguably one of the best episodes of The Original Series has to be “Balance of Terror” which has Captain Kirk facing off against the captain of an enemy ship, someone who’d turn out to be just as clever and sly as Kirk is.
At one point in their cat-and-mouse chase, the two ships go completely silent in the hopes of hiding their location from one another. As the hours go by, Kirk retires to his quarters and is visited by his trusted confident, ship’s doctor Leonard McCoy. In this scene, Kirk asks “Why me? I look around that Bridge, and I see the men waiting for me to make the next move. And Bones, what if I’m wrong?” While Kirk admits to not expecting an answer, his friend McCoy gives him a great one:
“In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named Kirk.”
In this simple exchange, the audience is reminded that Kirk is not a superhero, or some advanced, more enlightened version of ourselves. Rather, he is a person just like us, susceptible to moments of uncertainty and doubt about our abilities and whether we are in fact charting the right course going forward.
That sense of vulnerability is something even today I see many leaders grappling with, in large part because we continue to promote people to leadership positions not because of their ability to mobilize the collective talents of those they lead, but because of their own technical competencies. As such, it’s not too surprising that many leaders struggle with feeling like they have to have all the answers to the challenges their employees face.
But as McCoy’s answer reminds us, it’s okay for us to be vulnerable in how we approach our leadership because in the end, we’re only human and our ability to acknowledge that gives us the permission to seek answers from outside of ourselves.
It’s a wonderful scene that brings forth this much-needed lesson on modern leadership: it’s okay for leaders to embrace the vulnerability that comes from not having all the answers [Share on Twitter].
4. Risk is a necessary reality of leadership
Over the course of its original 79-episode run, Star Trek provided viewers with a number of wonderful, thought-provoking story lines as well as some truly unforgettable scenes.
In terms of our discussion on leadership, one that comes to mind is a scene where Kirk and his senior team are discussing a dangerous mission where they literally have to put their lives at risk for the sake of garnering new insights and knowledge from an ancient and powerful race.
For most of the assembled crew, the danger seems to be too high a price to pay for whatever knowledge or insights they might gain. Seeing the resistance of his crew to going ahead with this mission, Kirk reminds his team of the risks humans had taken in the past which have reaped the benefits that they now enjoy. Of how people dared to dream of doing what was then the seemingly impossible in order to open the doors to new possibilities and new opportunities.
Kirk then ends his speech with this memorable quote: “Risk. Risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”
And therein lies perhaps another reason why this show continues to inspire a new generation of fans – it reminds us of the necessity of pushing outside our comfort zone if we truly want to evolve and grow. That we shouldn’t be looking backwards to the past, to what some might call ‘the good old days’, but to instead look forward in order to plan how we can create a better tomorrow for all.
It’s a peculiar irony of our modern, digital world that despite our access to faster computers and Big Data that can help us predict and anticipate possible outcomes in the future that we are now more adverse to risk and uncertainty. That we’ve become so myopic in our field of view that we prefer to seek solace in goals that we can chart over the span of a quarter instead of over the years to come.
And this is where we learn the fourth important lesson on being a better leader from Star Trek: leadership is not about playing it safe, but envisioning a future that others want to be a part of [Share on Twitter].
It’s my hope that in writing this piece as my way to celebrate Star Trek’s 50th anniversary that – whether you’re a fan like me or not – you can better appreciate what’s behind the longevity of this franchise and hopefully, the lessons we can find therein on how we can be the kind of leader our employees need us to be so that they can succeed and thrive under our care.