With ship captains as protagonists, the Star Trek franchise has always been a great platform for showcasing the high stakes pressures and exhilarating triumphs of leadership. That also makes it a fun showcase for leaders to take away some valuable lessons and tips.
With the new Star Trek: Picard series, which premieres on Jan. 23, 2020, and Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access, there’s a new set of leaders to learn from. And for technologists and business leaders who are fans of the Star Trek captains of the past, here are four big leadership lessons that never get old. (Disclosure: TechRepublic is owned by ViacomCBS.)
1. Evacuate the space station, but leave the baseball
My favorite moment in the Star Trek franchise occurs in the final episode of season five of Deep Space Nine. The Cardassians capture the space station and Captain Benjamin Sisko and his Starfleet personnel are forced to flee.
However, when Cardassian leader Gul Dukat goes into Sisko’s office, he finds that Sisko has removed everything of value–except for Sisko’s most treasured item, his souvenir baseball. One of Gul Dukat’s associates says, “I don’t understand.”
It’s “a message from Sisko,” Dukat explains. “He’s letting me know he’ll be back.”
LESSON: Even when you suffer setbacks or defeats, show confidence that your team will persevere and live to fight another day.
2. Collaborate with your frenemies, but cover your tail
One of the best episodes of Star Trek: Voyager is “Counterpoint,” episode 10 of season five. Voyager is passing through the territory of a powerful and bureaucratic race called the Devore, which has an extreme prejudice against telepaths. The Devore forcefully boards Voyager, but the Voyager crew successfully hides its telepaths so that they can’t be captured.
Later, the Devore leader Kashyk returns in a shuttle and in plainclothes and asks for asylum on Voyager. He says he knows they are hiding telepaths and he and Captain Kathryn Janeway work together to find an ingenious way to continue to hide the telepaths while getting Voyager out of Devore space.
But when a Devore ship catches up with the them, Kashyk says the only way to save the plan is for him to return to the Devore ship and take back command. Of course, then he returns to Voyager in uniform with his crew and tries to capture the telepaths, now that he knows the plans. But, Janeway had anticipated him and hid them in a different way–which dismays and impresses Kashyk.
“Well played, captain,” he says. “It seems I never did earn your trust.”
Janeway replies, “I had to take a few precautions. You understand.”
“Better than anyone,” says Kashyk.
LESSON: Think like a chess champion–always several moves ahead.
3. Pick a fight with a Nausicaan (a.k.a. embrace your earlier mistakes)
Arguably, the best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is “Tapestry,” episode 15 of season six. Captain Jean-Luc Picard has a near-death experience when his artificial heart fails and he ends up in an afterlife experience with an old friend and nemesis from the semi-omnipotent Q species.
Q offers Captain Picard the opportunity to go back to his youth at Starfleet Academy to change the incident that landed him with the artificial heart–a fight with a pack of 7-foot Nausicaans who were trying to cheat one of his friends in a bar game. With Q’s help, Picard quickly realizes that altering his past and taking a safer path would change the course of his life and career in ways that would make him much more mediocre and less fulfilled.
After he’s revived and recalls the experience, Picard tells his second in command, William Riker, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were loose threads, untidy parts that I’d like to remove. But when I pulled one of those threads, it unraveled the tapestry of my life.”
After hearing the whole story about the fight, Riker tells him, “I wish I had a chance to know that Jean-Luc Picard.”
LESSON: Embrace your earlier mistakes, don’t run from them. They show how far you’ve come and they can help people relate to you and your journey in ways that can build stronger bonds of trust.
4. Risk is part of the game, if you want to sit in the big chair
In the opening scene of the movie Star Trek: Generations, Captain James T. Kirk is invited to help a young whipper-snapper captain christen the new Enterprise before its maiden voyage. It’s basically a PR stunt to take the ship for a quick jaunt around the solar system with journalists on board for the ride–and a skeleton crew to simply get the Enterprise out of spaceport and back.
But, something unexpected happens–as it always does in Star Trek–and the Enterprise gets a distress call from a pair of ships in danger. The Enterprise is the only ship close enough to help so it has to respond. With a barely functional ship, the young captain struggles to use his standard procedures to find a way to help, and finally asks Kirk for advice.
When Kirk offers an idea for how to improvise, the new captain brings up the possibility that the move could destroy the ship.
“Risk is part of the game if you want to sit in that chair,” Kirk said.
LESSON: You have to take risks to make big moves and fulfill your mission. Become a great calculator of risk if you want to be a great leader.