Trek Class: Riker vs. Shelby, a Case of Star Trek “Generations”

By Professor Anthony Rotolo - June 09, 2011

“Trek Class” is a course at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies titled “Star Trek and the Information Age.” The course examines episodes of Star Trek series as a method of introducing concepts related to technology, society and leadership in our world. This series of posts seeks to share some of the concepts discussed in Trek Class with the StarTrek.com community.

In "The Best of Both Worlds", the Enterprise crew faces a dangerous threat from the Borg – an alien race with entirely different goals and values from those of most humans and other races in the Alpha Quadrant.

But as the conflict with the Borg takes place in space, another confrontation is unfolding on board the Enterprise. Lieutenant Commander Shelby, a Starfleet Borg expert, has her sights set on the Enterprise first officer post currently held by Commander Riker. Ambitious, talented and equipped with the latest knowledge and techniques, Shelby simply believes she can do a better job and that Riker is standing in her way. Riker, however, sees Shelby as reckless and untested, even if she is talented. Her zealous approach also reminds him that he has become more “seasoned” over time. This, perhaps, is what he dislikes most about Shelby’s presence.

As we viewed this episode in Trek Class, an interesting discussion took place about the characteristics of the modern work environment that many students are experiencing as they arrive at internships or new jobs. Today’s college students, part of the so-called Millennial generation born between 1980 and 1995, are emerging to take the reins from their Baby Boomer predecessors. With each generation viewing the other to be quite alien in its goals, motivation and tactics, this process is resulting in its fair share of tense “first contact” situations.

Millennials are known to be tech savvy, resourceful and ambitious. Often considered a management challenge by those more senior, they are far less concerned with spending their careers at a single company. With a reputation for wanting to become CEO overnight, Millennials are prepared to take several jobs in a year, trading up for better pay, better hours and a work environment where they are more comfortable and feel appreciated. These behaviors, quite at odds with those of the Boomer generation, can make the emergence of the Millennial workers seem as threatening as Borg assimilation.

In many ways, the conflict between Shelby and Riker highlights this scenario, and perhaps reminds us that the cycle of a new generation slowly taking over for the last will continue in the future. Shelby, a 24th-Century version of today’s Millennial, arrives on the Enterprise equipped with information and tactics that seem untested to her senior officer, yet prove valuable when traditional methods fail. She is willing to try out her theories on the fly, based on knowledge of the Borg neither Riker nor the senior staff have had the opportunity to study at Starfleet Academy.

Riker, perhaps the Baby Boomer of the future, has committed himself to serving as Captain Picard’s first officer for the long haul. He has turned down offers of his own command, including one still on the table with the USS Melbourne, in favor of remaining with the Enterprise. Shelby, seeking to move quickly up the ladder, is unable to see why Riker will not move on.

This is a commonly described disconnect between Millennials and Baby Boomers. The more-senior Boomers prefer to see new workers advance after “paying their dues” and proving they are dedicated employees, as they believe they had to themselves. Millennials can see this as “settling” for a job, or even as growing outdated and ineffective. Sharing this view, Shelby tells Riker, “If you can’t make the big decisions, Commander, I suggest you make room for someone who can.”

Much like Shelby, students and recent graduates often express similar frustration about what they consider overly cautious supervisors. In fact, the idea for Trek Class itself was born during a discussion with young professionals about this very issue. Trying to present one possible approach, I referenced Captain Picard’s willingness to allow teenage Wesley Crusher to contribute on his crew. The overwhelming reaction to both Picard’s example and the use of Star Trek to illustrate the concept convinced me to develop this course.

Perhaps Picard may be able to teach us something about the struggle between Riker and Shelby as well. While still in command of the ship, Picard does not allow Riker to ignore Shelby’s plans entirely. Deferring to the experience of his first officer, Picard still requests that Shelby be allowed to prepare an alternative in the event that the chosen course fails. It is perhaps Picard’s willingness to hear out the ambitious officer’s ideas that ultimately leads to Riker’s selection of Shelby as his own first officer when Picard is assimilated by the Borg.

With such different approaches to work and career, whether between these two officers or among those in our modern workforce, it can be easy for one side to dismiss the other out of hand. However, the example of Riker and Shelby highlights a few important lessons for workers of any career stage.

As students in Trek Class pointed out, success is achieved when experience and new ideas are each given consideration. It is only when Riker allows Shelby to contribute, realizing that he, too, was once much like her, that the strongest ideas are formed. At the same time, Shelby is able to offer her best work after accepting the value of Riker’s experience as a leader.

Picard does not miss these points. After being freed from The Collective, he praises Riker for his “brilliantly unorthodox strategy,” calling him his “former first officer.” It appears that Picard recognizes that Riker’s own growth as a leader required him to accept the challenge posed by the younger Shelby, and that he may indeed owe his survival to their ability to work together.

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Anthony Rotolo is a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool), where he specializes in social media. A new semester of Trek Class will begin meeting on August 30 at 5:00pm EST, when you will be able to join the class discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #TrekClass. Until then, Professor Rotolo will continue to share concepts and reflections from this semester’s class on StarTrek.com.

 

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