A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
February 10th, 2013 by William

Beam Me Up Scotty

The original Star Trek, created by the legendary Gene Roddenberry, was a classic science fiction series that ran from 1966 to 1969. It was one of my favorite shows of the time–along with Twilight Zone. The series had a couple later spin-off shows, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as the film series. While I’ve seen all the films, I never really got into the spin-offs (I did watch them on occasion but they just never measured up to the original–although the special effects were definitely better).

While the Star Trek series has had a lot of influence on the genre of science fiction and we also see its inspiration for some technological inventions such as the cell phone, I’ll bet you never thought it could provide some useful lessons in management and leadership?

One of the reasons I like the original version of Star Trek over its successors is the main character, James Tiberius “Jim” Kirk played by William Shatner. As the captain of the starship USS Enterprise, Kirk leads his crew on their five year mission “to go where no man has gone before.”

In my view Kirk provides us some useful lessons in good leadership. That said however, it’s not just Kirk that exemplifies good leadership. He also had his loyal (and sometimes recalcitrant) sycophants and his interaction with them was a central theme carried through most episodes. The characters of Spock and Bones display how the next level down from the top should be acting–not afraid to tell the boss the truth–providing critical inputs–even if the inputs were negative. The key is that for that to happen it takes a special kind of leader.

There’s also some obvious leadership metaphor at work in the series. Leonard Nimoy, who played the Science Officer Spock, and DeForest Kelly, who played McCoy, the ship’s Doctor, metaphorically represents the logical and emotional sides of all of us that are constantly in opposition. The key is that they both were essential for Kirk to make the necessary managerial and leadership decisions as Captain of the Enterprise. Their personalities played heavily in making Kirk the leader he was. Our lesson is we shouldn’t be afraid to let both the logical (data) and emotional (empathy) side of us play a factor in how we lead.

And of course we have Scotty, the ship’s Chief Engineer, played by James Doohan. Scotty consistently provided Kirk with a dose of negativity just when Kirk needed him to come through and perform a miracle. The episodes were few and far between where Scotty didn’t report back to Kirk that fixing the Warp drive was impossible, yet Kirk never reacted negatively but only provided gentle nudging to bring out the best in Scotty. And for his respected Captain, Scotty somehow would always come through in the end.

To add the younger, less experienced, element to the show we have Ensign Chekov, portrayed by Walter Koenig. Chekov was the navigator/helmsman and was always Kirk’s go-to guy when they needed to get the Enterprise out of a tight jam quickly. Kirk’s relationship with Chekov offers an insight into how mentoring can play an important part in the success of a young subordinate.

There are other critical characters in the show; Chief Communications Officer Uhura, portrayed by Nichelle Nichols, and Lieutenant Sulu–George Takei’s character. Both provided their particular brand of expertise to the, most often, chaotic happenings on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Of course every episode had its nemesis–someone, or something, the crew came into contact with in their journeys that had plans to destroy the Enterprise. The take away–if you’re on the cutting edge of your industry, or niche, it’s to be expected. It always pays to be good at crisis management–because stuff happens. Kirk was always able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

All of the supporting characters were essential in making the series the success that it was. All played a part in providing the necessary background for Kirk to display the traits of good leadership that make the show a learning experience for all of us. So with that, here are my ten takeaways from the show–the leadership skills that can be observed in Captain Kirk:

  • Step Up and Be the Leader–never follow or have to get out of the way–Kirk never shied away from a tough predicament and was always the calm, consummate leader during trying circumstances
  • Allow Everyone in the Organization to Speak Freely–censorship begets fear and mistrust–Kirk always listened to everyone on the bridge letting them voice their opinions and concerns. Remember you’re not a leader without followers and you won’t have followers unless you listen to them
  • Allow Everyone to Do Their Job Without Interference–Kirk never pushed Chekov aside so that he could pilot the ship himself–he trusted even the young to perform in a crunch–he provided the necessary mentoring even in times of chaos
  • Be a Servant–Kirk was always looking out for the welfare of his crew–putting himself in harm’s way before ordering others into compromising situations–he was always part of the “away-team” to a hostile planet putting himself in harm’s way–he didn’t lead from his Captain’s chair
  • Shared Accountability–Kirk took responsibility if things didn’t go as planned–he didn’t hide behind plausible deniability and pin failures on his team–at the end of every episode there wasn’t a witch hunt
  • Limit the Number of Meetings–Kirk held few “meetings” to discuss problems–his decisions were “stand-up” and made right in the thick of things–on the spot–yet always after consulting with his trusted advisors
  • Rely on Your Inner Moral Compass–Kirk always took the path that led to the right moral and ethical outcome–practicing his values were a key part of his leadership approach
  • Teamwork–Kirk created an atmosphere where teamwork was rewarded. At the end of every episode the crew shared in the victory–there weren’t any crew member of the month awards
  • Never Lose Your Temper With a Subordinate–Kirk never lost his cool no matter how dire the situation–how badly someone had screwed up–or if he got push-back to his orders
  • Never Talk Down to a Subordinate–condescension ruins trust and respect–Kirk always treated his crew and immediate subordinates with respect no matter how absurd he may have thought their opinions or when they said they couldn’t do something he had asked

As you can see there are quite a few useful lessons that can be gleaned from the Shatner character. It’s a shame that modern business doesn’t have more Captain Kirks at the helm, but then again that would require the next level down to step up and perform like the officers on the Enterprise. In any organization, leadership usually doesn’t come from just a single person. Whether an organization is functional or dysfunctional revolves around that relationship between the Captain and his executive officers. That interaction, and how the rest of the organization views it, is what set the stage for the organization to err toward dysfunction–or not.

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