A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
January 22nd, 2015 by William

Kobayashi Maru

In my February, 2013 blog post titled, “Beam Me Up Scotty,” I talked about leadership lessons that can be gleaned from the Captain Kirk character in the original Star Trek TV series (1966-1969). By all measures Kirk was a model leader, successfully saving the Enterprise and her crew, week after week, from sure annihilation. However, we didn’t really get an in-depth glance at what made Kirk tick until much after the TV series was cancelled. What I’m talking about is a revealing of a key event in Kirk’s leadership development that happens back when he was still a cadet at Starfleet Academy. The event was revealed in the opening scene of the 1982 film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” It also appears in the 2009 film that was titled simply: “Star Trek.”

In the 1982 film we learn of a test that’s part of Starfleet Academy’s training for all potential starship commanders. The test is called “Kobayashi Maru.” It’s designed to test the character of cadets in a “no-win situation. What’s interesting about the test is that it’s designed not be “won.” All cadets take the test to reveal how they will react to a “no-win” situation, i.e., failure. There’s some solid psychology behind this as how we react to failure is a good indicator of our underlying character.

Star Trek screenwriter Jack B. Sowards is credited with inventing the test, naming it after a friend whose last name was Kobayashi. Since being revealed in the 1982 movie the “Kobayashi Maru” has achieved much popularity among Star Trek fans, and even in the business community. It’s used to describe any no-win scenario, or a problem whose solution involves actually redefining the problem as the only way to win. Captain Kirk was the one and only cadet that actually passed the Kobayashi Maru test and the way he did it provides yet another leadership lesson–or certainly a lesson in how to rise to the top.

The test, “Kobayashi Maru,” is a computer simulation in which the cadet is in control of an imaginary starship like the Enterprise where he/she is tasked with the rescue of a disabled civilian vessel named Kobayashi Maru, located in the Klingon Neutral Zone. For those un-familiar with the series, and the conflict between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets, being in the neutral zone is a no-no that can prompt an intergalactic war.

The reason the test is no-win is because it’s programmed that way. For the cadet he/she must decide whether to attempt rescue of the Kobayashi Maru crew–thus endangering their own ship and lives–or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction. In the scenario, the cadet receives a distress signal stating that the Kobayashi Maru has struck a gravitic mine and is rapidly losing power, hull integrity and life support. There are no other vessels nearby. The cadet is faced with a decision:

• Attempt to rescue the Kobayashi Maru ’s crew and passengers, which involves violating the Neutral Zone and potentially provoking the Klingons into hostile action or an all-out war; or
• Abandon the Kobayashi Maru, potentially preventing war but leaving its crew and passengers to die

If the cadet chooses to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the cadet’s ship is destroyed with the loss of all crew members.

Kirk beats the test by sneaking into the test chambers the night before he’s to take the test and re-programs the test such that he can save the Kobayashi Maru’s crew whilst still escaping destruction of his own starship by the Klingons. In other words Kirk cheated. After the test Kirk is credited with saying, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” This was his justification for cheating. What’s interesting about the revealing of what most would think is an apparent “flaw” in Kirk’s character, is that Star Fleet actually praises him for his effort because none of the cadets before him had thought of this method of cheating to pass the test.

Cheating is an integral part of all our lives, our culture and is an integral part of the modern business landscape. Of course it takes a different form than the cheating Kirk did, or that we may have done back in school where we might take the liberty of sneaking a peek at the test paper of the student next to us to get the answers. In the business world it’s not that simple. In the business world cheating includes playing office politics, torpedoing peers, lying, bullshitting, taking credit for other’s work, etc. Even using our connections and their influence to help us in our career is technically cheating. And, as I’ve written about many times, the above behaviors are prevalent in today’s workplace more than ever.

So the question becomes: Why Do We Cheat? According to Ben Michaelis of The Huffington Post, we cheat because of society’s fixation on winners. “In America ’tis better to cheat and win than be honest and lose,” Michaelis said in his blog, “Why Do We Cheat.” In other words we are “required” to cheat if we want to be successful. If we all had to rely only on our day-to-day job performance, few of us would rise very far. Thus we learn to cheat at a very early age. Just watch two 5 or 6 year olds attempt to play a board game–they make up the rules as they go along.

Learning to cheat begins in elementary school when we learn to break or bend the rules to win competitive games against classmates or simply to get better grades. By the third grade the “high pressure” starts as more students begin taking standardized tests and most schools also begin giving grades. Children start down the cheating path to keep up or to please their parents or teachers. And the need and propensity to cheat only gets worse as we progress through our academic career. You might even make the case that learning to cheat is a hidden part of the curriculum.

There are many studies on the issue of academic cheating and they confirm that cheating only gets worse as we get older. Statistics show that elementary school students admitted to cheating 24% of the time, middle school students 66% of the time, high school students 75% of the time and college students 82% of the time. As our school career progresses we hone our skills at cheating. Cheating becomes engrained in our character and we take these skills with us into the workplace. In fact we use our cheating skills before we even get that first job. Virtually every one of us has lied a little, or a lot, on our resumes. While this is a serious issue for employers, sometimes it’s the only way of leveling the playing field with the other candidates. In other words, we want so much to win–and get the job–that we’ll take credit for almost anything to get a leg up on the competition. Our LinkedIn profiles are proof of this.

As Michaelis noted, “tis better to cheat and win than be honest and lose.” Thus we learn/need to cheat because of that pressure to succeed, that first started in the 3rd grade. Or is it actually more the fear of failure? Whichever, cheating is reinforced by the fact that as we progress through our career we quickly realize that those who get ahead often times are those known for their unscrupulous behavior. As we climb the corporate ladder both the pressure and need to cheat gets more intense. Given that the top layers of most management teams are filled by the sociopathic element of our society–who will cheat without remorse–it becomes almost “mandatory” that we cheat if we want to rise to the top. In fact I’ll bet that statistic of 82% of college students who cheat quickly reaches 100% of business people who cheat. This completely explains why dysfunction is the norm in most organizations–and explains why it starts at the top.

So really the question becomes “why not cheat?” Everyone else is doing it. When everyone else is doing it it’s no longer an anomaly but it becomes part of the norm of our culture. Thus cheating is accepted and those that cheat the best become celebrated and rewarded for it.

We can justify cheating as just another way to “think outside the box.” We’ve all heard that somewhat useless cliché. We’re told to “think outside the box” all the time, but how exactly does one actually do that? I’ve never come across any useful step-by-step guidance into how to actually think so much differently–until? Maybe the answer is really very simple–that cheating is really only thinking outside the box. So that’s why Kirk was celebrated–he was just “thinking outside the box?” Even in the make-believe of the 2280s people get rewarded and promoted for cheating.


2 Responses to “Kobayashi Maru”
  1. Carolann Steinmeiz says

    Awesome! Its actually remarkable article, I have got much clear idea about from this post.

  2. Bradley Turpin says

    Thanks very interesting blog!

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