Lessons from Star Trek

At my last few employers I used to blog regularly and encourage other executives to blog. I will be reproducing slightly modified versions of some of those blog posts here. This one was intended to be a little “tongue-in-cheek” because I had a bit of a reputation as a nerd.  It discusses leadership lessons we can learn from watching Star Trek. To my surprise, it turned out to be, by far, the most popular blog post I wrote, and received, by far, the most comments.

Science Fiction Confession

I have a confession: I’m kind of a science-fiction nerd. I certainly have that reputation among my colleagues and get good-natured jokes and ribbing. Sometimes I re-enforce this by “stepping in it”. But, come on, when someone misidentifies a Jawa as an Ewok, or incorrectly mixes Star Trek and Star Wars metaphors, what is a person supposed to do?

Among the Sci-Fi I like, I like Star Trek. I used to rush home from school to catch the new episodes of the original series, and I was thrilled when the series rebooted years later.

I like STNG

My favourite Star Trek series was The Next Generation – known to fans as STNG. I liked it best, and I’m going to discuss some of the aspects I liked that I think are relevant to our work here. I’ll leave the pure fiction fandom for social conversation times.

First, for people familiar with the Star Trek franchise and the STNG series, when I say, “I like STNG”, I mean the “real” episodes. Not the first season, except for how happy I was that anything returned at all. (It’s amazing that there was a second season considering how bad the first was.) And not the silly episodes like the holodeck adventures – I always assumed that those were fillers during creative lapses and during the writers’ strike, although the holodeck episodes in the Deep Space Nine series were worse.

Second, for everyone else: yes, I know it’s fiction. That doesn’t bother me. We can appreciate good writing and can learn from and admire behaviours exemplified in good fiction. And I think the best STNG episodes were good fiction.

I like the world view Star Trek, especially STNG, presented, but my current comments will be limited to ways that world view applies to leadership and technology.

Leadership

The senior leaders in the series demonstrate a variety of leadership characteristics – some good, some bad. We can learn from all of them – but I’ll highlight a few of the good characteristics here.

Values

One of the guiding principles for the lead characters is to have a clear set of values, and to stay true to them. Their employer, The Federation, itself has a simple value statement – the “prime directive” which, interestingly, guides some episodes but is deliberately set aside in other episodes in favour of the personal values of the leaders. Captain Picard seems to have two personal values that override all other concerns.

One is “truth” – in several episodes he emphasizes that nothing is more important than seeking and revealing the truth, and he forgives serious transgressions when staff are open and truthful about them. An episode providing good example of this is “the Pegasus”, which ends with Picard saying to his first officer (while releasing him from confinement),

“When the moment came to make a decision, you made the right one. You chose to tell the truth and face the consequences. So long as you can still do that, then you deserve to wear that uniform. And I will still be proud to have you as my First Officer”.

Another good example is “The First Duty”, with

“The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth… it is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based.”

(It’s hard for me to recommend that episode as I didn’t like the Wesley Crusher character, but it is a good story.  Here’s the scene.)

The other is the fair and ethical treatment of people. While this is shown in many episodes, I particularly like a couple that involve Commander Data. I like “the Offspring”, where Picard disobeys an order, stating,

“Order a man to hand his child over to the state? Not while I’m his Captain”.

In “The Measure of a Man” Guinan guides Picard to realize that the Federation’s attempt to define Commander Data (a sentient machine) as “property” has deeper implications:

“. . . Whole generations of disposable people.”

“You’re talking about slavery.”

“I think that’s a little harsh.”

“I don’t think that’s a little harsh, I think that’s the truth.”

Strategy vs implementation

The leaders in the series do a good job of separating strategy formulation from implementation. The hard part, and where their attention goes, is in deciding what to do in a given situation. Actually doing it, once the decision is made, is only work, and is facilitated by their technology.

Roles and the chain of command

The Canadian public service has the unofficial slogan, “Fearless Advice, Loyal Implementation”. Many STNG episodes demonstrate these two roles: when options are being sought, provide advice, and argue for your point of view; once a decision is made, execute that decision.

While there are many episodes where this is demonstrated as a matter of routine procedure, the episode “Gambit, Part II” addresses it directly, when Acting Captain Data reprimands Worf.  It’s also a great example of a manager dealing with a performance problem immediately, firmly, clearly, and in private.

Communicate in the audience’s language

The series contains many examples of the importance of communication, especially of adapting it to the circumstances and of speaking to each audience in language they will understand. One is firm – even threatening – with bullies and Klingons, and one quotes regulations to hyper-bureaucrats. The best example of this is the episode “Darmok”, where the entire episode is based on the concept of a species whose language uses a completely unfamiliar structure, and learning to communicate with them.

Technology

Finally, a technology leader can hardly talk about Star Trek without talking about their technology. Some of their technology (e.g. teleportation and faster-than-light travel) is forbidden by the laws of physics as we presently understand them. Most science fiction writing has this problem – there would be no aliens or interstellar travel in stories without some way to violate these laws. While the series depends on these “forbidden” technologies, I like that the writing acknowledges this dilemma in subtle ways.

For example, a physical rule called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle prohibits macro-scale matter teleportation such as the Star Trek “transporters”. Clearly the writers are aware of this, because several episodes make passing reference to a system component called “the Heisenberg Compensators”, which presumably addresses this. I like that gesture.

However, a lot of their technology is not impossible in that sense – it’s only hard, or expensive, or something we don’t know how to do yet, but that they have figured out. The underlying premise is that they have a vast, almost unlimited energy source available. What could you do with nearly unlimited quantities of energy? Quite a lot.

Their technology, and its extreme adaptability, is enabled by highly effective system architecture. A real-time graphic display shows the operation of systems, at any level of detail. Interfaces between systems and components are standardized, so you can implement new interactions between systems merely by sketching what you want on the interactive display. “Let’s route the output of this system through this processor, then feed it into this system over here”. There are no concerns about how to do that – you draw the desired flow of energy or information and it just happens.

When I first watched these shows, this kind of flexible system interaction seemed like a distant future vision, probably fiction. Now, however, Cloud computing is close to making this a reality.

The series also contains numerous important nods to security. The ease of accessibility and connectivity of systems also presents a security vulnerability, and this vulnerability is the basis of some episodes. Hacking, viruses, authentication, encryption, and privilege management are all key to various stories. This is a good reminder to get the security right.

STNG is replaying on a variety of networks – Netflix, Crave, etc. Skip the first season (except as the basis for certain drinking games) but have a look at some of the episodes mentioned above. Even if you don’t become a fan, there are good lessons to be found.

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