Leadership Lessons from a Star Trek Convention

Leadership Lessons from a Star Trek Convention

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William Shatner addresses the Creation Entertainment Star Trek Convention in Seattle, WA. August 25, 2013. Photo (c) 2013 by Daniel W. Rasmus.

Star Trek conventions are not just places to dress up in your favorite Star Fleet uniform, don a t-shirt adorned with a favorite catch phrase, character or ship, or wait in long lines to capture a picture of yourself with a Trek celebrity. Star Trek conventions also allow Trek fans to discuss the impact of the show on their lives. Much has been written about Star Trek and management, most notably in Star Trek: Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wanted to explore not what writers or management philosopher’s thought mattered about Star Trek, but what attendees, people who work at Amazon and Microsoft, Starbucks and small lumber companies brought to work from their Star Trek Experience.

(To keep the interview simple, I only asked for first names).

Policies and procedures matter. Some, like Joseph, focused on policies and procedures. He felt that his employer, an import/export firm, needed to follow the rules even when they were inconvenient because those rules were written to uphold some right or law that he and his company didn’t have the scope to challenge. He also learned that he needed to be diplomatic in his negotiations with people who may not share his fervent regard for published guidelines.

Care about your people. Captain Picard always stood up for his people. “I want all managers to do that,” said Amazon’s Alex.  “He is wise, when push comes to shove he will defend his people.” In contrast to Joseph’s stalwart defense of policies and procedure, Alex saw all the Star Trek captains occasionally recognize that grey area between what is written, like the Prime Directive (the Star Fleet general order to not interfere with the development of other worlds) and what is right for the people under his or her command. “Do we follow some stodgy company policy?” asked Alex, or “do we do what is right for the customer. At Amazon we base our decisions on principles, the Prime Directive is a great example of a principle, but we don’t let the principles control all of our decisions.”

Several people also talked about gender and species equality as a reminder that leaders who really care about their people are inclusive, not exclusive.

Don’t work for an idiot. David, who works for a lumber company, and perhaps thinks his boss is less than qualified, said it was important to interview your boss when you take a job so you can figure out if you fit into the “crew.” “Find the role that works for you,” says David, “if you aren’t willing to do what it takes, then there is no point in you being there.”

Follow your heart. Meredith, a middle school student, decked out in full uniform, wants to be an engineer. She isn’t to the point where she can sign-up for Warp Theory classes, but she is taking all of the science and math she can get. And though she may not know it yet, her Father and sister, also dressed in uniform, and her mother, in attendance, but not really a fan, represent perhaps a good practice in heart following: a supportive family.

Resistance is futile. Or as former German teacher Connie used to say, “Widerstand ist zwecklos!” as she admonished her students: no matter how hard you resist, knowledge and ideas were going to seep into their heads anyway. And Edward reminds us that one is never too old to learn “from people under your command.”

Follow orders. Jared and Nichol said following orders has been important to their careers as junior sailors. The commanding officer is in his or her position because of their experience. When they say “make it so,” you need to follow their orders.

Empower your people. Anne and others agree that following orders is important, but so too is empowerment. Good leaders don’t micromanage, they empower people. They recognize the quality of their staff and let them step up to what needs to be done.

Know when and where to discipline people. Don’t yell at people in front of other employees. This is common management practice, but it is often neglected in the heat of a moment. Tom sees the moment when Worf challenges Captain Picard as a good lesson. Rather than argue on the bridge, Picard invites Worf into his ready room where they hold a “frank discussion.”

Always test your assumptions. Kobayashi Maru, for most Trek fans, means facing a no win situation — staying calm in the face of certain death. But in broader terms, some fans see it as an important test of assumptions that can help people gain clarity. The testing of assumptions doesn’t have to be as grand as questioning one’s continued existence, it can be as focused as wondering what will happen to auto insurance companies if we adopt self-driving cars.

Recognize the power of the team. Even if you are in charge, you don’t have to be the first up with every idea or to volunteer for every action. People have a wide variety of skills and people who aren’t in charge may actually be better at dealing with a particular situation than the person “in charge.” Tom says to “seek input from the crew.” Robin adds that “delegation to officers builds trusts and strengthens the team.” Steve reminds us that team can arrive at many options, where individuals may be limited by their own perspectives. “Not all problems are the same,” he says, “use a team to come up with different options.”

Negotiate cooperation. One recurring theme were the events that took place on board Voyager as Captain Janeway negotiated a peace, and eventually an integrated team, from her collection of Star Fleet personnel and the rebel forces of the Maquis. Dennis saw this as a key skill required of today’s managers of multi-national teams, teams whose only affiliation is through the organization that they all work for. They don’t have a natural camaraderie across their cultures, and some may even be rivals or enemies. It is the job of the manager to negotiate and design a work environment in which people can accomplish what needs to be done. They key to this negotiation, as stated by Sam, is to discover “mutually beneficial solutions.”

A Note from the Bridge

It may seem silly to look to a science fiction television show for management insights, but the writers draw from their experiences, those of their actors and from stories told around the dinner table by family and friends. For a character in a command role to be credible, they must behave in a way that garners the respect of the viewers. The fiction must ring true—and if it does, it offers a sounding board for our own practices, and perhaps, inspiration to do better. Gene Roddenberry created a future of aspirations where humankind live and thrive. In our world of uncertainty and doubt and pop culture, where better to look than the archetypes of future managers for lessons on how to better manage projects, people and processes today.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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