Lessons in Leadership from Captain Kirk

Captain Kirk Picture

Forbes.com has recently published an article pertaining to leadership lessons from Star Trek Captain Kirk (www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/03/05/five-leadership-lessons-from-james-t-kirk/).  Being a life-long lover of all things science fiction, I have a soft place in my heart for the original Star Trek series.  In spite of limited special effects technology, I think the story and plot lines have always been very good.

Being a professional (IT manager) I was curious to see what types of leadership lessons were to be learned from Captain Kirk.

1.  Never Stop Learning

Part of problems I see is that people may be hungry at the start of a new endeavor.  Fresh out of school, or just finishing work to change careers, people may be complacent or back off.  From my personal experience, this can lead to a loss of momentum, and may be hard to get back into a full gear.  Recent economic problems may lead to people suddenly without a job, and also with a dated skill set.  Captain Kirk was always learning new things to lead his crew to safety and prosperity.  As the article states, knowledge is the best key to overcoming obstacles in your way.

2.  Have Advisors with Different Worldviews

Too many organizations have floundered or ceased to be relevant as a result of executives not having the necessary information.  This sort of “groupthink” can lead to very poor decisions (New Coke, or more recently Quikster) due to a result of a leader not being challenged.  Captain Kirk relied on the advice of Doctor McCoy and Spock for many of his important decisions, but never fully took them without further contemplation based on his own experience.  Throughout the series, McCoy and Spock were often of dissenting opinions, although they respected each other.  Kirk does not surround himself with people who are afraid of voicing opinions, and I feel that good organizations are characterized by a two-way, free flowing communication practice.  If Kirk had two advisors who agreed with his every idea, I suspect the Enterprise would have not been successful or perhaps destroyed as a result.  This would have been very bad for the TV show as well.

3.  Be Part of the Away Team

Maybe it was reckless for the captain of a starship to beam down into hostile environments.  One weakness of the show is that essentially the core leadership of the entire ship usually beamed down to the planet into potentially harmful situation.  One explosion and the ship would be without most of the senior leadership.  What would the show have been like without the main characters going into alien worlds so compromises were made for the sake of storytelling?  Plus, Kirk had guys wearing red shirts to draw fire away from himself, McCoy, and Spock!  However, the distinction can be made that Kirk was leading by example.  He was not above mixing it up with everyone and pulling his share.  How many people have worked at places where the leadership and management called for sacrifices (working late, weekends, etc…) only to be absent when the work was being done?  I suspect that those who adopt this philosophy think they command leadership respect through their title and not through actions.  Although there are times when I need to be in a meeting or need to work on some paperwork, I always try to my best ability to help out when necessary.

4.  Play Poker, Not Chess

The Forbes.com article goes on to specify that Kirk prefers to play poker instead of chess, and argues that chess is too limiting and robotic in nature.  Rather than focus on the mathematics behind decisions as one would do during a chess match, an individual should think about strategy and behavior.  Kirk was often able to read body language or to simply bluff his way out of a bad situation where mathematical chances for success were slim.  To only focus on numbers behind everything can be very useful, but to understand motivations and decision making process based on psychology, that can be very useful.  The articles states that understanding competitors can lead to better outcomes than following rigid lines of thought as someone would do while playing chess.  While I agree to a point on what the article is saying, sometimes poker is simply a matter of luck as to what the cards will be.  I found this point to be the weakest.

5.  Blow up the Enterprise

Sometimes you need to know when to pull the plug.  For product designs, those who designed it may not want to pull the plug on it simply because they put so much of their time into it.  To pull this plug on it signifies that their idea was not adequate, and all the time they put into their idea was for nothing.  However, a bad idea or product is just that, a bad idea, and even if a company invests lots of money into one, pulling the plug is often the best solution.  Otherwise the organization will lose even more money and time as a result.  Losing a little is better than losing twice that amount.  Kirk knew that the best way to survive in Star Trek III.  In order to survive a very bad situation, he had to sacrifice the Enterprise.  Pulling the plug on something is probably not an easy thing to do, but a good leader would know when to check their pride at the door and do the best thing at that point in time.

Overall, I thought the article was pretty interesting, especially with my predisposition to love all things Star Trek.  Although on a personal level, I have always found Picard to be the better leadership role model, but Kirk is pretty good in his own right.  Hopefully Fores.com will put out a leadership lessons for other captains.  Maybe that would be a good blog posting at a later date.  We’ll see…

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