It’s hard to believe that not everyone grew up as a second generation sci-fi geek watching afternoon reruns of Star Trek on channel 5, but sadly it’s true. So maybe your dad wasn’t a ‘Trekkie’ and you have little or no interest in science fiction but it is hard to deny that for over four decades Star Trek has had its influence as a subculture throughout the world. Recently, many programs have focused on the impact that Star Trek has made on generations of scientists, writers, inventors and the like. Martin Cooper, considered to be the father of the modern cell phone, has often admitted that he owes his biggest inspiration for his revolutionary invention to the Star Trek “communicator”. Randy Pausch, in his book “The Last Lecture”, devotes an entire chapter to the lessons of leadership learned from James T. Kirk and the fact he grew up wanting to be the legendary captain of The Starship Enterprise.
The synergy of captain and crew of The USS Enterprise became one of the enduring qualities of the Star Trek story that was very much ahead of its time. This doesn’t mean that it is time to break out the gold spandex shirt or the vinyl boots and go-go skirt, nor does it mean start talking to everyone in an over dramatic tone. But there are some subtle strategies to team building woven into the vinyl backing of that captain’s chair and it’s worth taking a seat on the bridge of the Enterprise from time to time and view your own team from the Jim Kirk perspective. Here are some “What would Captain Kirk do?” strategies;
Captain, she’s gonna blow!Kirk knew his officers, inside and out. Dr. McCoy was the cynic, Scotty was the emotional hot head, Sulu was the dreamer, Chekov was the immature kid, Uhura struggled with self-confidence and of course Spock needed to lighten up from time to time. James T. Kirk was also aware of his own ego and propensity towards the over dramatic, but because of his understanding of his officers as well as himself he was able to keep the balance of personalities of the main characters. As a result, the team could still bond and remained highly effective. When you manage people, you manage emotions(or lack thereof in Spock’s case) and sometimes there is a need to push or pull at them. Captain Kirk knew when and how to do both.
I’m a doctor Jim, not a cheerleader:The captain is the compass of crew morale. Nothing seemed to be more important to Jim Kirk than the well-being of his crew and his ship. He knew that his own style was, a little less than subtle and that his intensity could negatively impact the crew if not filtered. He knew when to bring humor to the bridge, to poke fun of himself and give small doses of inspiration to less experienced crew members. Granted, he periodically pushed people to the edge but his relationship with his officers allowed them to push back, keep the push in check. Ultimately, he knew that the morale of his team began and ended with the captain.
Spock meet me in the transporter room and bring that new guy, ensign? Kirk always seemed to have at least one rookie with him when he beamed down to a new planet in distress. When the newbie didn’t get vaporized within the first five minutes, some mutually beneficial dialogue often took place. The newest team members often give unfiltered feedback, Kirk would get fresh ideas or insight on the ‘pulse’ of his crew. The best way for the captain to know if his message is making its way throughout the crew is to spend time with the newbie. The rookie gains valuable experience, confidence in their ability and bonds with senior crew members.
Sulu, you have the bridge:All of the key officers of the Enterprise, at some point, were given control of the bridge by Captain Kirk. Even Dr. McCoy and Lt. Uhura, in select episodes, sat in the captain’s chair for a short time. It was clearly communicated, up front, that someone else was “assuming command” too. So regardless of where the captain was, everyone knew who had control of the bridge. This ‘cross training’ accomplishes several things; First and foremost, it cultivates trust between captain and a key crew member. Kirk must have faith in that person’s ability to leave them in charge of ‘his baby’ and 400 lives. There is a new sense of mutual respect and appreciation that follows, for each other and the complexity of the role of ship’s captain. That officer earns credibility with the rest of the crew. It’s motivational, now other crew members want a turn sitting in the chair and it becomes a subtle reward for top performance. Lastly, it’s a learning lesson. Circumstances change, Klingons always seem to attack out of nowhere, quick decisions need to be made and there will be mistakes. Although Jim Kirk is never too far away, that person on the bridge is forced to work through it on their own, at least for that episode. The good news is that your role probably doesn’t involve navigating life or death situations with new life forms, at warp speed, out in deep space.
Beam me up Scotty:Naturally there are many complexities to running a starship and the captain can’t possibly stay directly involved in them all. Imagine Jim Kirk starting every morning in the sick bay telling Leonard McCoy how to run his medical facility? Of course he would occasionally assist Scotty in changing out a DiLithium crystal or adjust the helm for Sulu in an ion storm but for the most part he allowed his people to run their department and the people. When you have the right people on your team, it frees you up to stick to your role as captain. Delegate and follow-up, but let people do their job. Have confidence in their ability and stay out of their way.
Not on my ship mister!Lastly and perhaps most important; Be firm but fair and always consistent. Kirk’s rules and expectations for the ship applied to everyone, all the time. Kirk played no favorites and held himself to the same standards he had for the entire crew. And with the exception of the occasional poisoned Romulun Ale or getting beamed to a parallel universe, his actions were rarely inconsistent.
So maybe Star Trek is just a cheesy sci-fi television program from the 60’s and no one will ever line the series up next to Aesop’s Fables as time-tested pearls of wisdom. It has certainly remained a cultural phenomena for almost fifty years and a humorous allegory on leadership. If you ever wanted to be Captain Kirk, it’s ok, you are not alone.