Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What Would Kirk Do

After the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I began watching the original Star Trek series as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix. I grew up watching Star Trek with my dad, including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. He took me to see Generations and First Contact in theaters. Star Trek is associated with some good memories.

While delving into my inner Trekkie, I came across a few Forbes articles that appealed to my inner manager as well. For the benefit of all, here is the first of (hopefully) many leadership tips from the sci-fi/fantasy world:

Five Leadership Lessons From James T. Kirk

  1. Never Stop Learning   
    •  You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown– only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.
Even though Kirk was a ladies man, his "reputation at the Academy was that of a "walking stack of books," in the words of his former first officer, Gary Mitchell." This extensive learning was demonstrated in his battle with Gorn (episode "Arena"), in which he preps a shotgun-like weapon using gunpowder (in the 23rd century...). Being capable of drawing on a vast array of knowledge and skills will always be beneficial in leadership. You never know what obstacles you might encounter.



     2.  Have Advisors With Different Worldviews
    •  One of the advantages of being a captain, Doctor, is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it.
Commander Spock is a (half) Vulcan whose commitment to logic causes him to pity the fool who's illogical. Dr. McCoy is scientifically curious, moral, and a bit grumpy. The two often argue, with Spock cutting through emotional biases to uncover the most logical solution and McCoy providing a compassionate conscience and openness to the decision-making. As the Forbes article notes, "Kirk sometimes goes with one, or the other, or sometimes takes their advice as a springboard to developing an entirely different course of action...Organizations that allow for differences of opinion are better at developing innovation, better at solving problems, and better at avoiding groupthink. We all need a McCoy and a Spock in our lives and organizations."

     3.  Be Part of the Away Team
    •  Risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.
Stanford's Robert Sutton recognized that many leaders "avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve. I remember hearing of a cell phone company CEO, for example, who never visited the stores where his phones were sold — because that was a management task that was beneath him — and kept pushing strategies that reflected a complete misunderstanding of customer experiences. (Perhaps he hadn't heard of how often Steve Jobs drops in at Apple stores.)" Kirk often volunteered himself to beam down with members of his crew on dangerous missions. He was able to assess the situation more clearly on the ground. While hands-on, he wasn't necessarily a micromanager. When he delegated exploration duties, he understood the risks due to first-hand experience and listened carefully to those who were in the field.

     4.  Play Poker, Not Chess
    • Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker. Do you know the game?
Chess is, according to the Forbes article, an intricate game "of defined rules that can be mathematically determined. It’s ultimately a game of boxes and limitations. 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." Kirk is known for his rather unorthodox style in difficult scenarios. It was his exploitation of Khan's lack of space experience and "two-dimensional" thinking that made him victorious in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It was his, as Spock put it, "unique" final solution that allowed him to become the only cadet to beat the no-win scenario of the Kobayashi Maru test: he "changed the conditions of the test" (not the same as cheating, I might add).



    5.  Blow up the Enterprise
    • ‘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.
Passion is essential to leadership, but allowing passion to lock one into the present mold can be a fatal misstep. Economist Joseph A. Schumpeter coined the term "creative destruction," which described the process by which the innovative new destroyed the old (I simply prefer the word "innovation"). While there are costs to innovation, the benefits largely outweigh them.


Schumpeter was a family friend of the Druckers (both Peter and his father Adolph visited him on New Year's Day 1950, eight days prior to Schumpeter's death) and consequently was a major influence on Peter Drucker's theories of management.[1] In order to remain relevant and beneficial to society, organizations had to be entrepreneurial and innovative. As astutely told by Forbes, "One recurring theme in the original Star Trek series is that Kirk’s first love is the Enterprise...[I]t’s hinted that his love for the ship kept him from forming any real relationships or starting a family. Despite that love, though, there came a point in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, where Captain Kirk made a decision that must have pained him enormously – in order to defeat the Klingons attacking him and save his crew, James Kirk destroyed the Enterprise. The occasion, in the film, was treated with the solemnity of a funeral, which no doubt matched Kirk’s mood. The film ends with the crew returning to Vulcan on a stolen Klingon vessel, rather than the Enterprise. But they returned victorious."


In conclusion, Captain/Admiral James T. Kirk of the starship USS Enterprise taught and demonstrated numerous lessons to leaders galaxy-wide:

We need to keep exploring and learning. We need to ensure that we encourage creativity and innovation by listening to the advice of people with vastly different opinions. We need to occasionally get down in the trenches with the members of our teams so we understand their needs and earn their trust and loyalty. We need to understand the psychology of our competitors and also learn to radically change course when circumstances dictate. By following these lessons, we can lead our organizations into places where none have gone before.




1. See Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "What Would Peter Say?" Harvard Business Review (Nov. 2009); Karen E. Linkletter, Joseph A. Maciariello, "Genealogy of a Social Ecologist," Journal of Management History 15:4 (2009).

1 comment:

  1. "Live every day of your life so that your examples may be worthy of imitation." Brigham Young

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