The Leadership Lessons of Star Trek

Trek Leadership

I learned a lot about leadership from Star Trek.  Stop laughing, I’m serious.  We are all influenced by our cultural tastes and Star Trek was a big one for me.   I’m not embarrassed about liking Star Trek, but at the same time you won’t find me at Star Trek conventions wearing a homemade uniform either.  That doesn’t mean I don’t own a uniform…but that’s a different issue.

Setting aside the JJ Abrams rebooted movies and even The Next Generation; the best of the Star Trek movies is Star Trek II, the Wrath of Kahn.  You can debate me, but you’d be wrong.  One of the subtle themes in the movie is the concept of the no-win scenario.  It is a test for all starship captains (leaders) where there is no way to win.   A ship contacts you in distress.  If you go to rescue it, you have to violate  treaty.  If you ignore it, the crew dies.  If you do go after it, the Klingons attack and destroy your ship.  The movie opens with this test and the young trainee crew is all “killed” undergoing the test in a simulator.

Admiral Kirk explains that it is a test of character.  It is not a test that is meant to be beat, it is a measure of how a leader deals with a situation where there is no positive outcome.  “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”

The no-win scenario has strong ties to managing in an IT department. Often times we are forced to choose the lesser of two evils.  Sometimes the solutions we pick are not a winning scenario, but one that simply works.

The lesson of the no-win scenario is to think, be creative, and turn a bad situation into a good one.  When confronted with what he did on the no-win scenario, Dr. McCoy piped in.

“Lieutenant, you are looking at the only StarFleet cadet to beat the no-win scenario.”


Kirk: “I reprogrammed the simulation so that it was possible to rescue the ship.”


“He cheated.”

Kirk:  “I changed the conditions of the test.  I got an accommodation for original thinking.  I don’t like to lose.”

“Then you’ve never faced that situation, faced death.”

Kirk:  “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”

Well, there you have it, from the words of a model in leadership.  James T. Kirk’s suggestion is simple, don’t believe in the no-win situation.  Find a way, even if you have to cheat, to make it a success.  Don’t accept that something is impossible.  You may have to bend a few rules along the way, but in the end what matters is the success.  No-win is not a situation that is acceptable.

There are a handful of other old-school Star Trek leadership lessons worth pondering, just in case you’re wondering…

The Prime Directive calls for non-interference.  From an IT Department perspective, it seems that the same should apply to end-user community.    We should all seek to be as much non-interfering as possible with our users.

Ultimately it is your friendships and relationships that resolve problems.    Everything is fixed if you know the right people.  You can have all of the processes and procedures in the universe, in the end it is people that get things done.

Always start out with your phaser set to stun.

Some missions are dangerous.  Make sure you don’t wear a red-shirt on those missions (don’t draw attention to yourself).  As a side note:  73% of the crew fatalities in the original Star Trek were extras that wore red shirts.   59% of these deaths were due to transporter (technology) failures…go figure.

When all logic fails, trust a hunch.

“Remember…”  Don’t forget your corporate culture or history.

Always have Scotty (a great tech) nearby if something is broken.

Engineers always lie about how long it will take to do something so they can appear to be “miracle workers.”

Remember the Klingon saying:  “Only a fool fights in a burning house.”  When you are in the middle of a “crisis” personal arguments will usually not solve the problem at hand.

A good friend will tell you when you’re behaving badly.   We all occasionally need someone to tell us we are not being good corporate citizens.  Kirk, Spock and McCoy were an excellent support team.  They shared frank comments with each other and kept each other in check.  We all need that kind of peer support.

Don’t put all of your ranking officers in one shuttlecraft.

Feeding the Tribbles doesn’t solve anything…it only makes more Tribbles.  (If you bring in bagels, you only get more people who want bagels)

Vulcans don’t lie – but they can exaggerate…so can co-workers!

Technology will fail when you need it the most — but almost always factors into being part of the solution.

“The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.”  As I have deployed technology solutions over the years, this little gem has gotten me out of a lot of potentially bad situations. You can expend a lot of efforts responding to “the one,” and sometimes lose sight of “the many.”

Don’t compromise your ideals.  We see this constantly in Star Trek.  Don’t give up on the values you hold dear.

Humans are illogical.  Don’t try and change or fight that.  Embrace their illogic.

Sometimes diplomacy involves a good fight.  Constructive conflict is how organizations grow and succeed.

“Insufficient data does not compute!”  Sometimes you need more information in order to proceed.  Captain Kirk didn’t kick back and wait for perfect information, he got just what he needed and took action.

If you’re going to go; boldly go…where no one has gone before…

Enemies are often invisible.    Often the things that cause technology problems are under the radar.

“I  canna change the laws of physics Captain!”  Best read with a Scottish accent.  No matter what, you can’t ask for the impossible.

There are times the Captain needs to beam down, and there are times he/she needs to let his/her people go down without him/her.

“You’re pushing Jim.  Your people know their jobs.”  There’s a good leadership lesson right there about micro-management.  Let your people do what they do best.

Anything can be fixed if you can travel through time.

The Vulcans have it right – “live long and prosper.”

Sometimes a Captain has to put himself/herself at risk for the sake of the crew.

Scotty’s great line from Star Trek III applies to any project:  “The more you over-think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”  Simple counts!

“Come, come, Mr. Scott. Young minds, fresh ideas. Be tolerant.”

Always explain complicated technological issues with a plain-English analogy so that people can understand what you’re talking about.

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