Leadership Lessons from James T. Kirk


Yes, I admit it. From the time when the original series debuted in 1966, I was captivated by the optimistic message about exploration and global harmony here on earth.   I followed the series, the spin offs, and the movies over the years – even the crappy ones like 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture bringing back the long lost Voyager probe to its home on earth.  The return of Ricardo Mantalban as Khan . . . now that’s entertainment . . . at least in my book!    I have been, and always shall be . . . a Trekkie.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist talking about an article in Fortune magazine by Alex Knapp on The Five Leadership Lessons From Captain James Tiberius Kirk.  Why Kirk – you say?  Why not?  He saved Earth from disaster more times than I can count, defeated those pesky Romulans, and not only chased the Klingons across the neutral zone, but helped negotiate the peace between them and the Federation.

He was arguably the best starship captain the Federation has ever seen.  He always succeeded, no matter what. And I imagine that the reasons for this were not purely a matter of chance.  Kirk demonstrated some important leadership attributes and behaviors that can teach us all.  Some of the reflections below are Mr. Knapp’s, and some my own.    But if you are a Trekkie, you will be able to relate to these.

1. Change the Game. 

“[I didn’t cheat] I changed the conditions of the test; got a commendation for original thinking. I don’t like to lose.”

–         Kirk to Savak

Kirk is almost fanatical about winning.  Determined, driven, and willing to do almost anything.   His positive outlook and intense belief in his own ability translated to a “command presence” that is both reassuring and inspiring to the crew . . . especially when things got dicey.  Yes he sometimes was a suave ladies man, and surely a maverick.  But he was also someone who took his assignments seriously, determined to get command of his own ship faster than anyone.

When facing the Kobayashi Maru test (the infamous no-win scenario simulation at 23rd century Starfleet Academy) Kirk was at his best.  This was a simulation programmed by a then-smug Spock which was unbeatable – to the torment of all cadets at the time.  Kirk fails as well. . . the first two times.  But he figures out how to re-program the simulation to enable him to ultimately prevail – to Spock’s chagrin.

Sometimes we are way too willing to accept the facts and the situation as they are.  Kirk shows us that there is always something you can do to affect the environment, outmaneuver your competition, or change the rules of engagement.

For the record here is a clip of Kirk teaching Savak (in the Wrath of Khan) discussing the Kobayashi Maru test.

2. Choose a Diverse Team of Advisors

Kirk: “Come on. Spock, why didn’t you jump in?”
Spock: “I was trying to comprehend the meaning of the words.”
McCoy: “It’s a song, you green-blooded…Vulcan. You sing it. The words aren’t important. What’s important is that you have a good time singing it.”
Spock: “Oh, I am sorry, Doctor. Were we having a good time?”
McCoy: “God, I liked him better before he died.”

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

No doubt, McCoy and Spock were the most trusted advisors Kirk had, and among his oldest colleagues and friends.   Their relationship was built on trust and mutual respect born from years of working and facing peril together.  Yet they could not have been more different from each other – and from Kirk himself.   One was cold and logical, the other emotional and, dare I say, “human”.  In the beginning, Spock and Kirk were arch rivals. Before Kirk became Captain of the Enterprise, Spock brings him up on serious charges after Kirk defeats his Kobayashi Maru simulation and even maroons Kirk on a frozen alien world.

What a testament to Kirk’s self-confidence as a leader, being so willing to surround himself with people whose world views are very different from his.   McCoy regularly challenged Kirk’s authority.  So often we surround ourselves with subordinates who are either weaker than we are, or will always bow to our will.   It takes a degree of self-assurance to invite people around you who can tell truth to power, and who will speak honestly about their view, no matter what you seem to be feeling or thinking.

3. Be Part of “The Away Team”.

Either one of us, by himself, is expendable. Both of us are not.

–         Kirk to McCoy

Whenever an interesting or challenging mission came up, Kirk was always the first to jump up and race to the transporter room, willing to put himself in harm’s way by joining the Away Team.  With his boots on the ground, he was always able to make quick assessments of the situation, leading to superior results. (At least, for everyone with a name and not wearing a red shirt.)  Kirk was a hands-on leader, leading the vanguard of his crew as they explored interesting and dangerous situations.

When you’re in a leadership role, it’s sometimes easy to let yourself get away from leading Away Team missions. After all, you paid your dues, didn’t you?  Let HR do the firing, or some other group work the weekend or over the holiday.  Yes, you do have other duties, but sometimes your place IS in the trenches, helping do the risky and even unpleasant business of your organization.

I experienced this as a first-time engineer working in a plant in Portsmouth, Virginia.  I was scrambling to get my field data collected and tests completed for a big upcoming presentation I had to do.  One Saturday, the plant manager stopped by to help me collect my data.   He didn’t have to do it, but he did.   I never forgot that simple act of compassion, and how this guy – who likely had many better things to do that day, chose to spend some of it helping a poor, lost engineer.  I often thought of his example in later years as I considered how I should spend my time.

4. Be Willing to Let Go of That Which You Love

 “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’ You could feel the wind at your back in those days. The sounds of the sea beneath you, and even if you take away the wind and the water it’s still the same. The ship is yours. You can feel her. And the stars are still there, Bones.”

–         Kirk to McCoy

There is no doubt that Kirk truly loved his ship – the Enterprise.   This is a recurring theme throughout the series.  On star date 3417.3 Kirk and the crew find themselves on Omicron Ceti III.  It is an idyllic place with no disease, everyone is happy and at peace.   As it turns out, on this planet a species of plants shoots spores that have a narcotic effect on anyone who passes by.  The entire crew decides to leave the ship, desiring to remain in this paradise.  Even Kirk is ultimately stricken by the spores and comes close to succumbing to their intoxication.  But as he is about to leave the Enterprise, he has second thoughts in reflecting upon his career, his ship, and his mission, causing him to feel a wave of violent emotions, which overwhelms and destroys the effect of the spores.  Yes, he loved his ship.

One can only imagine how he must have felt in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, In this movie, the Enterprise is attacked and disabled by the evil Klingon, Kruge. With the Enterprise dead in space, and the crew facing sure annihilation, Kirk makes the hard decision to feign surrender while activating Enterprise‘s self-destruct sequence.  NCC-1701 was no more, and Kirk must pilot a captured Klingon war bird for the rest of the journey.

So often we allow our egos to cloud our judgment, becoming so attached to product lines, initiatives and programs that we have put money and time into, we hang on to them long after we should let go.  The world is constantly changing, and we need to keep the mission at the top of our minds.  That is what should always guide our decision-making, no matter what we feel or our egos demand.

5. Play by the Rules of World You Are On.

”You mind your place, mister, or you’ll find yourself wearing concrete galoshes.”  “You mean cement overshoes?”   “Uh . . . Aye.” 

–         Mr. Scott, communicating to Krako (local mob boss)

In episode 49, A Piece of the Action, the Enterprise visits the world Sigma Lotia II.  It had been visited 100 years earlier by another Federation Starship that left behind some of its books and artifacts.  Oddly, the inhabitants managed to create an entire society based on one of those books – about the gangster movement in 1920’s Chicago.   When the unsuspecting Away Team beams down, they are captured by the local Gangsters and are forced to relinquish their communicators and phasers.    The local Mob boss threatens to kill Kirk et al if he doesn’t beam down a supply of “heaters” to help him defeat a rival gang.    The team quickly adapts to their new environment in dress and even adopt cheesy Chicago mob accent and slang expressions.   As usual, things are looking bleak for the Away Team, and to distract their captors Kirk ingeniously invents a nonsensical card game, “Fizzbin” with rules so bizarre the captors are distracted and the team “gets the drop on them”.

This illustrates that when we are operating in new markets, especially around the world, we can’t apply rules of conduct brought forward from our home base.   We need to consider how business is done there and act accordingly to be successful.  When we are a leader, we also need to think about our audience whenever we are delivering a speech, conducting a meeting, or simply making a visit, considering the audience and adapting our style and approach accordingly to establish rapport.

Final Thoughts.

At least for today, you  may not be leading a team across the galaxy, or facing the peril that Kirk and his crew did, but you face related challenges where Kirk’s leadership example DOES apply.

You can think innovatively and creatively when faced with losing scenarios or when you feel your path is blocked.  You CAN surround yourself with people who are different from you whom you trust to tell you the truth, no matter what.  You can also consider this as a major source of strength. You can be willing to lead from the front, in the trenches, even when it gets tough or dirty.  You can be a source of inspiration and make your people feel you don’t see yourself as better than them.  You can guide your decisions objectively, and with complete disregard for your personal feelings or ego.   And you can be flexible and adaptable as you face new challenges and guide your actions with respect for who you face.

Just maybe, some of these ideals will help you lead your team – you guessed it –  to “boldly go where no one has gone before. . . “

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