One day a few years ago as I was watching a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it suddenly struck me: Captain Jean-Luc Picard runs the Enterprise like a CEO runs a corporation. After that, I could never enjoy the show as much or in quite the same way as I had before. It began reminding me too much of work.
I am not sure what triggered this minor epiphany. When I began working in 1983, it was not in a conventional corporate environment. Although I had a supervisor, I rarely saw her in that role. There were no regular meetings, no status reports. We got together primarily for the obligatory biannual evaluation and obligatory pat on the back, and that was pretty much it.
As for teamwork, I was part of a tiny department, with two or three full-time people and one or two temporary employees. We had no team meetings and no formal discussions about the team, our processes, or our issues. We did our jobs, trying to stay on schedule so as not to cause problems for the next person. We had few of the trappings of a team and virtually no leadership, but perhaps that is why we were as cohesive a team as any that invests time and efforts in meetings, retreats, bonding, outings, and so forth.
So when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, I didn’t recognize the officers as a corporate-style team or Jean-Luc Picard as a CEO. Now I do.
Picard’s style of leadership marked a departure from that of James T. Kirk, whose command was more militaristic. Subordinates kept him informed and sometimes made recommendations; he made command decisions. On rare occasions, Kirk might call a meeting of the senior officers to talk about the situation, but much of the discussion seemed to be within his own mind, where often he seemed to have made his decision already. Sometimes, Spock, Dr. McCoy, or Scotty questioned his actions or followed his orders only reluctantly, but in most cases only when he would prove to be impaired in some way. Generally, his word was final. It was this combination of rapid internal weighing of the options and quick, incisive decision making that gives some fans the impression that Kirk was a better leader than Picard. For the 1960s, he may have been. But Picard was a 1990s kind of captain.
The bridge between styles may have been Spock. In “The Galileo Seven,” he made command decisions that his subordinates did not agree with, partly because to them the needs of the individual should carry as much weight as the needs of the many. The crew questioned Spock’s decisions and orders openly while Spock, who was not a natural leader, defended his logic and thereby exposed his weakness as a leader. In our society, leaders do not defend themselves or what they do.
At one point, Spock began to question his own choices, just as the crew did. Spock fails to achieve full leadership, while the crew does not gain true democracy.
The 1990s corporate dynamic of leadership culminated in Jean-Luc Picard, whose answer to nearly every crisis was to call a meeting of the senior staff. Fortunately, such crises announced themselves hours before a solution was needed, or the threatening aliens were courteous enough to allow a grace period long enough in which to hold a meeting, even an impromptu one. This gave Picard the opportunity to demand, “Options?” at which point Geordi, Data, Wesley, Worf, Crusher, or O’Brien came up with a technological or, less often, tactical solution. After a brief discussion of the risks and possible outcomes, Picard visibly weighed the ramifications and then said, “Make it so” or “Proceed” in his deepest, most decisive, and most authoritative tone.
Sometimes, two choices were proffered, and Picard had to make two decisions — to do something or to do nothing, and to use Officer A’s suggestion or Officer B’s idea. In at least one episode, “Cause and Effect,” he made the wrong choice not once, but several times,leading to the demise of the Enterprise over and over again. Only in an entertainment vehicle does a commander get to make the life-or-death error multiple times and still emerge with his ship and crew intact and unscathed.
In “Attached,” he and Dr. Crusher had to decide which way to go to escape. He paused for an instant. Then he said:
“You don’t really know, do you ?”
“I mean, you are acting like you know exactly which way to go, but you are only guessing. Do you do this all the time ?”
“No, but there are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence.”
No, leaders do not always know what they are doing, or they do know but hope to evade the consequences (like the executives of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and so on and on and on).
The key to leadership lies not only in making good or correct decisions, both routinely and under duress. Many people are capable of consistently making good choices; I am, and so are you. Otherwise. more of us would be utter failures at managing the business of our own lives. (Yes, sometimes we do fail, but mostly we make good choices.)
But I am not, and do not wish to be, a leader. A strategist, yes; a leader, no. A leader’s intellect, ability, and personality combined inspire confidence and belief. People don’t argue with leaders because they fear them or what the leader can do to them; they don’t argue with leaders because they respect and trust them. Both Kirk and Picard, and every senior officer portrayed on their ships, had earned that respect and trust from the crew.
The corporate environment is not so different in its day-to-day operations. Of course, there is usually no threat of Romulan or Cardassian ships hanging off the starboard bow, and imminent danger to life. There are, however, bad leaders at all levels — those ho consistently make questionable decisions, and others who are neither respected nor trusted. They rise to their leadership position through their connections, self-marketing, ability to take credit for the ideas and work of others, and plain luck. Their lack of genuine leadership ability soon shows to everyone they fail to inspire or lead. At best, the organization muddles along, failing to thrive. At worst, it rots from the inside out.
It disappointed me to think of Picard as a CEO, but he is at least a CEO with a an adventurer’s heart and a poet’s soul. That is why I think I would respect and trust him, despite my inherent distrust of leaders and the very idea of leadership.
And that is why he is captain of the Enterprise, not the chairman of Federated Conglomeration of United Intergalactic Foods.
To serve with such a leader would be a challenge, a thrill, and an inspiration.
Instead, I work with what I have.