It’s Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary, and while I could wax rhapsodic about the impact the show had on me in general, one thing that persists, even now, every day, is how much I learned how to be a good leader by watching Starfleet captains. Sometimes they were exceptional. Other times they really weren’t. I always learned something.
I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and dropped everything to watch Deep Space Nine when it aired. I remember Voyager‘s first episode when it aired, and being one of the very few people put off by (but not totally hating) the opening theme for Enterprise.
I will happily admit that everything I learned about leadership and managing people I learned from Benjamin Sisko and Jean-Luc Picard. I learned to be firm when I had to, to be diplomatic even when I don’t want to be, and to be thorny when it counts. I learned to pick my battles, fight on my own terms, and to trust when that trust is earned. Here are a few more things I picked up.
Don’t Stay in the Shadow of Your Predecessors, Even If It’s Tempting
There’s something about being second in command that gives you a level of freedom and flexibility that being on top of the chain doesn’t. It’s more relaxed, and while it’s still an important job, it doesn’t come with the same weight that being in command does. That said, when it’s your turn to step into the spotlight, you need to do it.
In The Best of Both Worlds, the epic season three/four cliffhanger that had Commander Riker in the big chair squared off against Picard-now-Locutus with the fate of the Federation and Earth itself hanging in the balance, Riker says as much when Guinan essentially storms into the Ready Room — right when he actually needs her, even when he doesn’t know it. She reminds him (in the video above) that the only way for him to move forward — or for him to do what he needs to do — is to let go of Picard — something he proceeds to do at the end of the episode.
The lesson here is pretty clear. Make your own calls, stand by your own decisions, and don’t whither wondering “what would X do if they were still here?” The more you do, and the more you second guess yourself, the more you’ll fail, the more the people around you will wonder what your vision is, what your direction is, and what your style of command is.
Even we, as viewers, got the same message in Q-Less, an episode in the first season of Deep Space Nine, when the show was still doing its fair share of coattail-riding off of the popularity of The Next Generation. In the video above however, we as an audience (and Q, as a character, standing in for us) get the message loud and clear: Sisko isn’t Picard, and we shouldn’t expect him to be. It wasn’t the best episode — in fact that scene wasn’t even the best scene. It’s problematic in all sorts of ways, but the message is absolutely clear: Deep Space Nine wasn’t going to be the same as the series that came before it, and luckily for all of us, not too long after the first season, that coattail riding stopped and the show started to evolve on its own.
Know When Your Ethics are Flexible and When They’re Not
If you put five dollars away for every time a Starfleet captain violated the Prime Directive, or bent (or flat out violated) rules and regulations for their own ends, you’d have enough money to retire on. That’s no surprise to any Star Trek fan, but the one consistent message across every series and every character is that the rules are there for a reason — but sometimes they’re worth breaking.
In The First Duty, after the equivalent of a detective procedural at Starfleet Academy (seriously, why have we never had an Academy-based show?) Picard leans in to then-cadet Crusher over his lie of omission, reminding him that his commitment to Starfleet is also a commitment to the truth, in every form. Of course, it’s an inspirational and tense moment, but it’s a reminder to the rest of us too — Picard has bent the truth more than once himself and we all know it — but flexible ethics are only flexible when you’re doing what you think is right, not when what you think is fun, or even flashy or grandiose.
In contrast, one of my favourite episodes of Deep Space Nine, and indeed one of my favourite episodes of television in general, In the Pale Moonlight, this spectacular monologue at the end sums up exactly the kind of inner conflict that comes with being enough of a realist to know that the idealism in an episode like The First Duty only extends so far — and when you have to reach beyond it for real, true greater good (or do you?) there’s no looking back.
Then there’s the wild opposite extreme, when you’re so busy doing what you think is right that you don’t consider the implications of your actions. In the Voyager two-parter Equinox, we saw an example of what happens when all of those guiding principles get thrown out the window — partially because of necessity, but also because those ethics are flimsier than they should be. The crew of the Equinox essentially imprison and slowly kill members of another species to use as fuel, and when they run into Voyager, it’s not too long before their secret is exposed, and everyone pays the price for it. It’s a classic example of rationalizing away your own ethical violations because the ends justify the means. Of course, it all comes around in the end, though, doesn’t it?
But again, that’s the core message, and the takeaway: Stand by your principles. Make the best decisions you can, and let your ethics guide you. Until, of course, you need to deviate from them to do what you think — and you really, really, need to think — is the right thing to do. Maybe it’s for the greater good, maybe it’s for your team, maybe it’s for the people you serve. But you need to know when your own personal code of ethics are the pillars on which you stand, and when they’re chains you need to break because they’re holding you back — and you’d better be willing to stand by them in either case.
Trust, but Hold People Accountable
Trust is earned, not given, but when you have people that you need to work with, you need to be able to trust them, at least to the degree where you let them do their jobs, do what they know best, and let them succeed or fail on their own — and then examining that success or failure when it happens. Praise and criticism both have a place when it comes to leading people, and it’s especially important when you let them act independently.
This isn’t same as being laissez-faire with the people you work with, however, or setting them up to fail (or knowing they’re going to fail) and then just saying “I told you so,” when they do. It’s about learning the line between trusting someone when they seem passionate to pull off what they want to do, and knowing when it won’t work out. In Legacy, a season 4 episode of The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise stumble on Ishara Yar, the sister of their fallen (too soon) security chief, Tasha Yar. They laugh, they cry, they get close to her…and she betrays them. She (supposedly) doesn’t mean to hurt them, but we get a tough lesson on trust in that episode, and how hard it can be to recover when you’ve been betrayed.
In the same vein, in the original series episode Assignment: Earth, we get a lesson in how rewarding it can be when you, against all odds, actually choose to trust someone to do what’s right and reveal their better nature, even if you’re not sure what their nature actually is. When it’s earned, that trust is extremely powerful. In the last episode of Voyager, Janeway asks old Harry Kim to “trust her judgement, one last time,” right when it counts — and frankly, it pays off.
But that’s the kicker. Learning to trust is important, and giving people the leeway to achieve, accomplish their goals, and make their own mistakes are both important, and as they prove worthy of that trust, you can let them take bigger risks and gamble on more critical decisions. You learn when you can trust their intuition, just as they learn. But in every case, whether they succeed or fail, you need to hold them accountable for their decisions. Whether that means praising their good work, or reflecting on their failures. It’s the only way any of us improve, grow, and learn when we can trust our guts, and when we need help.
Be Close, Give Advice, but Keep a Healthy Distance
At the end of The Next Generation, in the finale, All Good Things, one of the things that Picard laments in the closing scene is that he never took the time to get closer to his crew, as much as he always wanted to. He felt like he had to keep a certain distance, a theme echoed in a number of other series as well. Where Picard kept his distance, Janeway felt, in the Voyager season one episode The Cloud, that after getting stranded in the Delta Quadrant, that she had a responsibility to try to get closer to her crew, even if it was difficult for her (and awkward for them) to do so.
That’s the thing with being in charge in any organisation: You have to keep a healthy distance from the people you work with, and especially the people who work for you. You need to be available to them, hear their concerns and their ideas, and always be willing to provide feedback — perhaps not in the near-parental way that Starfleet captains always managed to be — but always a confidant, always a leader, but never quite a peer. Plus, the only way to maintain or create an air of authority is to actually be the authority people need when they need it. It’s difficult to do so if you’re so mired in personal relationships that it’s difficult to use good judgement.
That same episode also, even though it was way early in Voyager’s run, exemplified the importance of why it’s critical to have a great, trustworthy person at your side to help you run things — someone you can actually confide in, and of course, why the best leaders are the ones that are hungry and optimistically curious about the work they do, and want to jump on that work whenever they possibly can.
Stay Open to Options, but Don’t Apologise for Making a Call
Finally, and possibly one of the most important lessons you can learn about working with (and leading) people from Star Trek is that being you should always keep an open mind, be willing to entertain options, but then never apologise for making your own judgement call — even if that means you ditch the options and follow your gut.
After all, that’s one of the defining characteristics of leadership. You have to examine the options in front of you, consider the ones that aren’t in front of you, and make what you think is the best call based on the available information at the time — even when, as in All Good Things, the series finale to The Next Generation — you’re the only one who really understands, and everyone else questions your judgement.
When you make your call, stand by it unless you get new information that forces you to change course — and sometimes that new information can be really, really painful to accept, but correcting your own mistakes is better than losing everything sticking to your guns when the tide turns against you. Even then, don’t apologise for making your decision — you did it with the best intentions and the best information, and as long as you do so with your best and clearest judgement, you’ll have nothing to apologise for.
With luck, the people around you will trust your judgement. Their trust is earned too, so don’t expect it to come granted just because you have authority. Sometimes people will agree with you, and sometimes people will wonder if you’re crazy, but it’s more important to remember, as Janeway says, if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?