Star Trek

50 years of Star Trek: What Kirk and Picard taught us about leadership

By Tina Irgang

This week marks 50 years since the first-ever episode of Star Trek aired. Both the original series and the highly successful Star Trek: The Next Generation emphasized the importance of diplomacy and skillful negotiation (the occasional fight notwithstanding). But what other leadership lessons did Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard teach us during their years at the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise?

While the actual plots of the Star Trek universe are obviously science fiction-based, the show was always intended to hold up a mirror to real life, as creator Gene Roddenberry has said: “It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam, and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by [censorship], and it did.”

So with Kirk and Picard leading their teams in high-stakes situations designed to mirror real-world conflicts, many have drawn parallels between their decisions and those that need to be made by real-life CEOs (in fact, there is an entire book devoted to leadership lessons conveyed in Star Trek: The Next Generation).

What we’ve learned from the Starfleet captains

  • Adjust your communication style. CEOs are often tasked with convincing people — employees, customers, prospects — to share their views. For different kinds of audiences, this requires different communication styles, as Picard demonstrated numerous times in encountering new alien races. “Perhaps one of the key skills for any good leader is the ability to empathize and understand the people they work with, both on their team and outside their organizations,” notes Forbes. “This is especially true in a globalized world. People bring to the table not only their skills, but also their experiences, personalities and cultures. Understanding those cultures and experiences enables you to effectively communicate.”
  • Give your people freedom to experiment. Some companies, inspired by Google’s “20-percent time” policy, are giving their employees dedicated periods of time they can use to just think through and try new things, says Fast Company. The need for creativity and unorthodox thinking has been embraced by both Kirk (“Without freedom of choice, there is no creativity.”) and Picard (“Things are only impossible until they’re not.”).
  • Never lose your passion for learning. You may think you already know everything you need to lead your company — but remember that new skills can broaden your perspective on what you already know, and can often come in useful in ways you never expected. “Perhaps the best demonstration of this is in the episode ‘Arena,’ where Kirk is forced to fight a Gorn Captain in single combat. Using his own knowledge and materials at hand, Kirk is able to build a rudimentary shotgun, which he uses to defeat the Gorn,” notes Forbes.
  • Ask for help when you need it. In the episode “Q Who?” Picard asked a frequent adversary for help in defeating a powerful enemy, the Borg. Requesting and accepting help wasn’t an easy decision for Picard, and it isn’t an easy decision for any leader. However, it is sometimes the only viable course of action if we want to avoid failure, says Forbes: “Independence is far from a bad quality — indeed, the ability to be independent is an important skill for leaders. But equally important is having enough self-awareness to know when you’re overwhelmed, when the odds are against you and when you know you can’t win the battle by yourself. In those situations, a prudent leader will ask for help.”
  • Be judicious about calling meetings. Could the issue you’re trying to address be resolved with a phone call, or even an email or two? Then consider not calling a meeting that may take valuable time out of every participant’s day. As Kirk has said, “a meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”

Tina Irgang is the managing editor of SmartCEO magazine and SmartCEO.com. Contact her at tina@smartceo.com.