By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
It was a lazy summer afternoon, a Friday. Things were a bit slow at the office and upper management had left to get an early jump on their weekend. I, being a front-line manager, did not have that luxury. Besides, I had work that I wanted to complete before the weekend.
My first clue that something was amiss was revealed by increased activity in the hallway near my office. There was more movement than usual and at a higher volume. People were running, not walking. Giggling and excited whispering was predominate, rather than reserved talk and business-appropriate banter. It seemed that an impromptu game of tag had materialized.
Concerned that my staff had instigated or was somehow involved in this revelry, I quickly went to investigate. To my relief, the perpetrators were from a different department. Even so, my stern look of disapproval was respected enough to send them scurrying in other directions. I did not know if they merely retreated in order to find friendlier confines to resume their childishness or if a wave of common sense and decorum had now overcome them. Regardless, they vacated my area and I felt sufficiently removed from any possible ramifications for their actions. I returned to my office and to the project at hand.
Several minutes later, the next clue of impropriety came via the overhead paging system. It was being used, not for “official business,” but rather for the personal enjoyment of the restless minions remaining in the building. They paged a rookie to call an extension. I recognized this to be a non-existent number. I smiled, envisioning a frustrated greenhorn dutifully dialing a number that would not work. Certainly, the conspirators were watching from some hidden vantage point, gleefully snickering at their co-worker’s naiveté. This repeated a few times and once their victim became wise to their scheme, they paged him with a legitimate extension – one of an uptight secretary, who would have no tolerance of their Tomfoolery. The resourceful trainee, however, reciprocated with a retaliatory page of his own. This soon escalated to a “paging” war, drawing in more people, with increasingly ridiculous and outrageous announcements.
A final page stopped the misfits in their tracks, leaving them first chuckling and then bemused. In a reasonable impersonation of Captain Kirk, one employee accessed the overhead paging system and with deadpan seriousness announced, “Beam me up, Scotty; there’s no intelligent life down here.” I stopped working, smiled, and then laughed. Noticing it was now after five, I got up, turned off the lights, and went home. My work could wait for another day.
I’ve had a long fascination with Star Trek, repeatedly watching episodes from the five series, the cartoons (yes, there were Star Trek cartoons), and the ten movies. Among other things, Star Trek points to a promising and exciting future. Many societal problems are either resolved or greatly minimized in the future according to Star Trek, providing a mostly utopian existence where evil is restricted to outside the Federation, rarely to raise its ugly head amidst the crew of the Enterprise. Star Trek also has a realistic underlying basis in scientific fact and sound theory, albeit stretched a bit thin at times (the transporters are perhaps the biggest scientific leap). Plus, with good plots and cleverly intertwined story lines, it makes for good drama.
However, it is not optimism for the future, realistic scientific prognostication, or compelling story lines that have given me the most pause for consideration, but rather it is the lessons Star Trek provides in leadership. Entertainment value aside, I have looked to Star Trek as a study in effectively and dramatically leading people and managing staff. What lessons could I learn from Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer? How do they elicit such devotion and dedication among their crew?
I am not the only one thus intrigued. In the book, Make It So by Wess Roberts and Bill Ross (ISBN 0-671-52098-9, if you are interested), the authors share “leadership lessons from Star Trek The Next Generation.” They cover relevant topics such as focus, urgency, initiative, competence, communication, politics, honesty, interdependence, and resiliency. While the book makes for good business reading, it is even more rewarding to watch each chapter’s referenced episode, focusing on the specific leadership citations.
While the book draws its conclusions from specific episodes, my preference is general observations based on the collective Star Trek saga. Before doing so, we should note that Star Trek’s military-style command structure is not typically found in hospital and medical related call centers; therefore total employee obedience and unquestioned agent allegiance are not realistic real-world expectations. Nevertheless, here are some leadership ideas:
Although Starfleet personnel are trained to obey their leaders, the Enterprises’ crews show extreme loyalty to their captains. Why? Because the captains show extreme loyalty to their crews. This loyalty is earned, not commanded or demanded. Each captain was willing to go to great extremes and even take on excessive risk for the sake of an injured, wayward, or stranded member of the crew. When leaders put everything on the line for a follower, the follower is much more inclined to do the same for the leader and to more fully embrace their common cause.
Take Blame; Share Credit
A true side of leadership is to shoulder the blame for an erring, but otherwise worthy subordinate, while being sure to shower accolades on those deserving it. Conversely, cowardly and ineffective leaders try to make themselves look good by assigning blame to others and taking credit for what they did not do.
Tap into Expertise
Starfleet captains (as well as call center managers) often put together ad hoc teams for specific missions or adventures, mixing senior officers with junior members, who possess a unique skill or training. Junior staff that is thus tapped are given a great opportunity to rise to the occasion, performing at a higher level and with increased confidence and self-esteem. Employees who prove themselves in this way are promotable and can be groomed for even greater responsibility.
Celebrate Unconventional Thinking
A repeating theme in many Star Trek episodes is the seemingly unstoppable, irreversible, impending disaster. There appears to be no escape and no plausible solution. Yet one of the crew, in a moment of creative thinking, extraordinary deduction, or brilliant intuition will find a unique solution and save the day. Star Trek captains delight in this and so do effective leaders. Plus, as unconventional solutions are rewarded and recognized, their producing behavior is reinforced and encouraged. Quite simply, great leaders inspire their charges to innovate.
Be Worthy of Imitation
Each captain, as with every effective leader, possesses qualities that are admirable and laudable of emulation. These positive traits draw both crew and staff to their leaders, compelling them to be like, act like, and follow the example that they see. When leaders have no one following them, then perhaps they’re not admirable enough to be followed, or have some other character flaw.
Each captain is tough – when he or she needs to be. However, they also have a human side that those in their inner circle or close proximity are able to witness. This provides a connection that can transcend rough spots in relationships and times of stress.
A Final Thought
It took me way too long to realize the ultimate reason that Starfleet captains are such successful leaders. Quite simply, that’s how the writers made them!
Beam me up, Scotty.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.
[From the June/July 2006 issue of AnswerStat magazine]