I’ve stated many times that I’m a nerd. It’s just one of many labels that could be applied to me, but I’m proud of this aspect of my personality. I’m not much of a TV-watcher, but I do love Star Trek. It is gloriously nerdy. It’s all about spaceships, exploration, aliens, costumes, building weird machines, made-up languages, and truly awesome technology—some of the best stuff, in my opinion. It’s also about leadership, which I’ve always been interested in. Here are six of the biggest leadership lessons I’ve taken away from my favorite captains.
(A note: Even if you’re not a Star Trek fan, these are good leadership reminders. They are, however, best illustrated by actors in alien costumes.)
1. Be decisive.
Leading people into far-off solar systems isn’t for the wishy-washy. As a CEO, there are times in my daily life when I think of a particular episode. On the Next Generation episode, “Attached,” Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher are (not by choice) able to read each other’s thoughts. Further complicating matters, they are stranded on an unfamiliar planet. When Dr. Crusher wonders which way they should go, Picard answers with a tone of absolute certainty. However, Crusher knows he is only guessing. “Do you do this all the time?” she asks. He responds, “There are times when it is necessary for the captain to give the appearance of confidence.” He’s just making a choice, which is all he can do. Sometimes, there’s no way to know the right choice, but you must make one regardless.
2. There are many styles of effective leadership.
Janeway, Picard, and Kirk are very different types of captains, but they are each adept at facing the challenges and sacrifices of leadership. They all typically do the right thing, and even in exceedingly tough situations, they never abandon their missions. Maybe you identify with one captain more than the others, or maybe you share traits with all of them. We’re all guided by our own sets of values and experiences that shape us as leaders, and we can all improve by identifying our own weak points and using examples (even if they are fictional) to help us do certain things better.
3. STEM is the future.
Imagine living in a world where hyposprays, light-speed travel, phasers, AI, and transporters are commonplace. If humanity achieves this awesome technology and travels beyond our amazing little world, it will be because of STEM. If you have ever doubted the relevance of STEM, indulge in just one episode. In the Star Trek universe, the jobs and tasks aboard the ships are all related to science: medical, technological, and engineering. Even the leaders need to be very well versed in science and engineering. Those who don’t have a good understanding of STEM may get left behind.
4. Diversity is a strength.
If man is to survive, he will have learned to take delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.”
― Gene Roddenberry
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry believed in the power of innovation. He devised the prime directive and other facets of the show that make the Star Trek world so compelling. In Starfleet, several different species (and at least one android) work together to explore the vast unknown, showing us that there’s no reason Earthlings can’t do the same. Our differences are so small and yet, that’s what we tend to focus on. What we have in common is much more important.
5. You must believe in your crew.
You need to trust your crew, and they need to trust you. Foster that trust by demonstrating integrity and setting clear expectations. Also realize that not everyone is a Riker or a Spock, but everyone has a role to play. After all, young Wesley may have annoyed some of the crew (and the captain), but how often did he save the day? Even the Barclays can be valuable crew members. When you have the right combination of personalities and specialties on your ship, you’re well suited to meet new life, beam down to sketchy planets, get turned into and recover from being Borg—and you might even get to visit the holodeck in peace now and then.
6. Set a course. Engage.
Keep your eye on your destination and arrive as prepared as you can possibly be. There will be unexpected challenges, especially if Q pops up. You never know what you’re going to find when you are boldly going where no one has gone before. Obstacles are part of the journey. You may have to try many different solutions to solve problems along the way, but giving up is not an option, especially if lives and planets are at stake. Try again. Re-search, re-do, and re-design until you accomplish your mission.
I’m sure there are many more lessons you can learn from all the different versions of Star Trek. Of course, you could also just watch to relax and enjoy the fantasy. But it’s interesting to think about the Star Trek world from a leadership perspective and consider the starship captains from time to time. After all, when you’re seeking new discoveries, the person who gets to say “engage” has the best seat in the house.
Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the Executive Director and Founder of Science from Scientists, an award-winning, National non-profit which sends real, charismatic scientists into classrooms to improve the attitudes and aptitudes of 3rd-8th-grade students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). She is also the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology company aimed at developing tests and interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and health.
Star Trek photo credit: Enterprise-D_crew_quarters.jpg: Derek Springer from Los Angeles, CA, USAPatrickStewart2004-08-03.jpg: Cdt. Patrick Caugheyderivative work: Loupeznik [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]