Star Trek Reloaded: Leadership for the Next Millennium

September 05, 2022


Space: the final frontier. At a distance of countless light-years from Earth, starship Enterprise advances to galaxies where no man has gone before. It might not be 2200 yet, but exceptional leadership qualities are also what 21st century corporate leaders need to prevail in our BANI* world and succeed in making their companies fit for the future.

In light of the upcoming Star Trek Day on September 8, 2022, WU Executive Academy Dean Barbara Stöttinger has analyzed the leadership qualities of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Bones, and Scotty to tell us what today’s leaders can learn from them.

* Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, and Incomprehensible.

Starship Enterprise flies past a planet
What distinguishes the leaders of the Starship Enterprise, and what can managers learn from them? Photo © gettyimages

When the first episode of Star Trek was initially broadcast in the US on September 8, 1966, its creator Gene Roddenberry was probably not aware of how much the series was ahead of its time.

A Literal Launch of a New Era

Not only did the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 include a US-American (Captain Kirk), an Asian (helmsman Sulu), a Russian (navigator Chekov), a Scottish (chief engineer Scotty), and even a Vulcan member (Commander Spock), but communications officer Uhura was also the first female African American in a leadership position. And the kiss between Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk was the first ever interracial TV kiss. Light-years away from Earth, the USS Enterprise was on a peaceful mission to explore new worlds and new civilizations – for the benefit of all (humankind and other civilizations). Captain Kirk also believed that, as a leader, he would be able to contribute to changing the world and other galaxies for the better.

An image of the Milky Way
As a manager, you won't be able to change entire galaxies for the better - but you can certainly change your own company! Photo © shutterstock - Triff

Very progressive, considering that it was the mid-1960s, a time when the world experienced the (first) climax of the Cold War. Racial segregation was still part of everyday life and paternalistic hierarchies (hard-working and loyal workers were rewarded or at least kept on; lower levels answered to upper levels and did what they asked them to) were still considered state-of-the-art in the corporate world.

Leadership according to Star Trek

In addition to the above-mentioned achievements, the crew of the USS Enterprise also had a concept of leadership that was ahead of their time.

Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, has taken a closer look at what makes Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Scotty special and what today’s leaders can learn from them:

Captain James Tiberius Kirk („Jim“) Portrait

Captain James Tiberius Kirk („Jim“) - 1

Wouldn’t we all just love to have a boss like Captain James T. Kirk?

Kirk is a natural-born leader, always leading by example. He’s efficient, intelligent, and charismatic, emanating an almost magnetic attraction. Like no one else, Kirk knows how to motivate his crew to work together, achieve common goals, and change course, if necessary. He always stays completely focussed, even in difficult situations, and is not afraid to make hard and unpopular decisions. Even though he’s always ready to take risks, he never forgets his responsibility for the 400 members of his crew and the spaceship.

As captain of the USS Enterprise, he’s perfectly able to do almost everything himself (even navigating the spaceship on his own, if necessary). Still, he always trusts his crew’s expertise, usually basing his decisions on the estimations and recommendations issued by Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura. Of course, Kirk also challenges his crew – particularly Scotty, whose protests against diverting power to the protective shields and other important functions of the spaceship are usually ignored.

Lessons to be learned from Kirk:

  • Jim has put together a team of very different personalities. Current studies show that a high degree of diversity is an essential key to success, diversity referring not only to origin, age, or gender, but also to complementary skills of individual team members. Leaders are well advised to bring together team members with widely varying talents, strengths, weaknesses, and social roles.
  • Kirk is also always very focussed on the here and now. Much too often, we become entangled in micro-management tasks, losing sight of what’s really important: being brave in doing the right thing and thus being effective. Our own purpose and the objectives of our company can serve as signposts. It’s not always easy to gauge the potential outcome of new situations. Sometimes, we’re just flying blind. In such cases, focussing on goals and purpose can help us to stay the course.
  • Even though they’re constantly faced with ever more complex tasks, leaders must never forget their team: Kirk knows that appreciation, recognition, and trust in his team’s skills are essential for the success of their missions. For only as a team can they survive in foreign galaxies.
Commander Spock („Mr. Spock“) Portrait

Commander Spock („Mr. Spock“) - 2

Mr. Spock is known for his characteristic line, “Fascinating!” That’s how he reacts to phenomena which others perceive as either unbelievable or threatening. This underlines his scientific and neutral perspective on things that makes him regard tricky and complex situations as challenging rather than perilous. Thanks to his outstanding proficiency in handling computers and cutting-edge technology, Spock is able to save his colleagues and the USS Enterprise in several episodes. He’s a very objective leader with a hands-on attitude. He doesn’t rely on lengthy explanations but leads by example.

Lessons to be learned from Spock: 

  • Spock always analyzes situations based on data. Being half-Vulcan and half-human (his mother is from Earth), Spock perfectly combines rationality and logical thinking with human intuition. This becomes particularly evident in (extreme) situations in which his human side gains the upper hand, making him react emotionally and helping him rise to challenges that would be impossible to overcome in the typically reserved manner of the Vulcans.
  • What does that mean for business leaders and their daily tasks? It’s always good to keep cool and make decisions based on data and facts. Nevertheless, we should all trust our gut from time to time. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive but perfectly complement each other, allowing you to base your decisions on more varied resources than “just” facts and figures.
Dr. Leonard McCoy (“Bones”) Portrait

Dr. Leonard McCoy (“Bones”) - 3

Leonard “Bones” McCoy is the chief medical officer and a good friend of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Kirk often asks McCoy for advice, confiding in him, particularly in difficult situations. McCoy’s never afraid to speak his mind, contradicting his captain whenever he thinks that Kirk is wrong. He may not be as charismatic and driven as Kirk, nor as reasoning and serious as Spock, but they both appreciate his input, usually offered outside his actual area of expertise, which is to provide medical care to the crew. His famous lines, such as “Damn it, man, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!” or “What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?”, illustrate the variety of contexts in which he has to support Kirk.

McCoy loves to think of himself as “just a country doctor.” Nevertheless, he often demonstrates both his sharp intellect and compassionate empathy.

Lessons to be learned from Bones: 

  • Within his organization, Bones is something like a coach or a mentor. His empathy and his ability to put himself in other people’s shoes really make him stand out. It’s a key competence of leaders knowing when they need to give their team clear guidelines and when they need to have a sympathetic one-on-one with one of their team members. When leaders show empathy, the members of their team tend to have more trust in them, they are more open, more motivated, and less likely to suffer from burnout.
  • Bones is also a mentor with the ability to both listen to others and ask critical questions. He is not afraid to disagree with his superior. Leaders who consider this a valuable skill, actively support it, and don’t shy away from contradicting their own superiors, are perceived as more authentic and will be more successful in their jobs because their team will always have their back.
  • To this day, the controversies between Bones and Mr. Spock remain legendary. Even though the two of them are totally different, often unable to understand each other, and not always able to clear up their misunderstandings, their relationship is still characterized by mutual respect and appreciation – and, in the end, even friendship. This exceptional professionalism is something that many leaders could learn from Bones, as it makes working together with staff, colleagues, and superiors so much easier and opens up many new possibilities.
Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott (“Scotty”) Portrait

Lt. Commander Montgomery Scott (“Scotty”) - 4

Leaders with comprehensive expertise are an essential part of every team; they’re the backbones of their organizations. Scotty is the perfect example of such a leader: he doesn’t like being in the spotlight; instead, he skillfully pulls the strings behind the scenes. He’s capable of working at full tilt even in stressful situations and under extreme pressure. His professional work also makes it possible for Kirk, Spock, and the others to complete their tasks without encountering major difficulties and become the actual heroes (of the story). If the engine fails unexpectedly and for unknown reasons, Scotty and his team start narrowing down the issue. In such situations, Scotty reacts fast and based on well-funded decisions. His intuition always gives him new ideas for a solution. He perceives every attempt at solving a problem as a lesson to learn from and further expand his experience-based know-how. And the most important thing: he never gives up.

Lessons to be learned from Scotty: 

  • Scotty occupies a special place among the USS Enterprise’s top leaders: his social role is that of a helper who’s never above giving someone else a hand and who’s always there whenever he’s needed. Leaders have to be aware of the importance of this role in a team and make sure that someone’s there to fill it.
  • People like Scotty are key figures, not afraid of failure but always ready to try new things, with the ability to learn and adapt fast. They’re trouble-shooters who, if necessary, are able to break down even the most intricate complexities and solve all kinds of problems. Though they are often aware of their own skills and competences, it’s important to regularly challenge them and thus support them in further developing their clear understanding of things and their problem-solving competences.

The End – Well, Almost...

In spite of his progressive and visionary thinking, Gene Roddenberry still missed one aspect when creating the USS Enterprise and its crew of leaders back in the mid-1960s – an aspect that is essential from today’s point of view: there’s not a single female leader among the top managers of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701, the heavy cruiser of the Constitution class.

That’s why we’d like to add one entry to the “Captain’s log:” Stardate 2022. Commander Scott. Captain, we have a problem – a problem concerning the share of women on the bridge. And we’re not the only ones...

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