Celebrate Captain’s Week from June 13 through the 17 with us on StarTrek.com, where we highlight the leadership and the courage that sets each captain apart!
In “Strange New Worlds,” the first episode of the eponymous series, we find Captain Pike beaming down to the center of a rancorous debate between the leaders of Kiley 279. His goal was to prevent them from engaging in a globe-spanning war. Instead of speaking from a vantage of privilege or threatening the awesome firepower of the Enterprise as a deterrent, Pike reminded the opposing parties of the power of possibility. As Pike observed, “right up to the very end, life is to be worn gloriously. Because until our last moment, the future is what we make it.” This scene might offer one of the most powerful monologues in all of Star Trek. It also provides us with an example of leadership infused with the coupled principles of logic and compassion for which the franchise has been known these past 56 years.
What has always set Star Trek apart from other canons of science-fiction has been its fundamental assumption that our best future as a global community resides in an enlightened reliance upon logical problem-solving coupled to an unwavering respect for diversity in its myriad forms. In the Federation of the future, humanity has internalized the utility of logical thought in a self-actualized way such that people consider themselves to be part of a larger and wonderfully diverse whole. It is a future in which the constant exposure to new ideas in infinite combinations has liberated humanity from the shackles of bigotry. It is a vision of the power of possibility guided by the belief that there are no “others” and that everyone is welcome to sit at the table.
In our teaching of leadership, we routinely incorporate examples from Star Trek to help our students reflect upon themselves and engage in the consideration of others. Students of leadership are human, and consequently bring to their studies their individual biases of thought and experience. We have observed time and again how such biases can cloud the ability of otherwise competent people to solve even relatively straightforward leadership problems within the confines of the classroom. If personal bias can interfere with sound judgment in such a curated cognitive space, imagine how much more readily the situation can break down when one must lead in the absence of the instruction and support expectant of a positive learning environment. Our attempted antidote has been to teach a set of basic leadership skills (communication, patience, and relationship) that can be readily applied to any situation and entertainingly elaborated through examples from the series and films of Star Trek.
Communication is the most fundamental of skills if one wishes to lead effectively. Modern organizations present complex social dynamics that require leaders to convey relevant information to promote informed decision-making. Consequently, communication in leadership must be tailored toward the needs of those whom one serves. In other words, leaders must consider how their words will be received before sharing them. Whether over email or via subspace, a poorly conceived communiqué can cause more harm than good.
Patience should be an obvious necessity for effective leadership. However, the reality is that this is often not the case. There is always the potential for discord whenever two or more people interact with one another. It also seems these days that so many problems are spun into crises. Yet, the ability to stop, think, and listen is counterintuitively more important during times of perceived urgency. People can achieve novel solutions if they allow themselves the chance to meaningfully navigate conflict with others. This means slowing down, even when phasers are not set to stun. When we are patient, we provide ourselves with the cognitive space to make better decisions.
Relationship might be the most important of the three basic leadership skills, and we address it last to give it emphasis. Our individual styles of interacting with others can be unique, but they should share a common recognition for the dignity in others if we seek to lead toward effective problem-solving. We are social beings, even the Vulcans among us, and establishing positive relationships with those we lead provides the space necessary for people to function as part of the solution while feeling valued for doing so. The old adage that culture overrides strategy remains true. We don't need to like everyone with whom we work, but it is imperative that we demonstrate respect for them and recognize their individual needs. When we lead, we lead for everybody.
Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Courageous
Star Trek offers us a model to empower people to do good amidst times of difficulty, and among all the grand captains of Star Trek, Pike provides one of the best models of how leaders of the 21st Century might more adeptly forge paths into the unknown. As he demonstrated in “Memento Mori,” leadership requires that we "be vigilant, get creative...survive this by working together."
Pike was exposed from his earliest days to the lessons of both science and comparative religion, to the value of logic coupled with compassion. He would eventually become recognized as a capable tactician and one of Starfleet’s most decorated captains. Yet, Pike was a reluctant warrior — one who evinced strength coupled to compassion during the best and worst of times. Indeed, he demonstrated the wonderful habit of leveraging the basic leadership skills of communication, patience, and relationship through countless adventures. Pike made it a point to actively solicit input from others in order to better make decisions, and knew how to pepper even the most harrowing of situations with a subtle sense of humor that allowed him to better serve the ideals of the Federation to promote a more diverse and uplifting society. He recognized that there was greater potential to solve challenging problems when people are led to work together.
In “Children of the Comet,” Pike faced a conundrum when he sought to assist a pre-warp civilization to avoid what appeared to be a certain extinction-level event. Although the situation presented a significant challenge, Pike recognized its parameters and responded in kind. Importantly, he responded dynamically to events as they unfolded. Pike specifically demonstrated his ability to leverage the capacity of his crew through the verbal recognition of their respective skill sets (basic leadership skill: communication). Although the situation kept changing, he took the time to seek new solutions (basic leadership skill: patience). While recognizing the absurdity of the constantly changing situation, Pike voiced that absurdity to his crew by stating that “sometimes things go so badly you just have to laugh” (basic leadership skill: relationship).
In “Ghosts of Illyria,” Pike revealed his dislike of being caught unaware when he learned a deep, dark secret about his first officer. In response to the revelation, Pike responded with enlightened empathy instead of derision. As was his habit, when presented with new and problematic information, Pike gave his full attention and prevented himself from wallowing in his own preconceived notions (basic leadership skill: patience). He also demonstrated a recognition of the seriousness of the conversation by allowing it to proceed as necessary (basic leadership skill: communication). Crucially, when asked for a response, Pike made it clear that his respect for the first officer remained intact (basic leadership skill: relationship).
In “Memento Mori,” Pike observed that “when we seek out the unknown, we will find things that challenge us.” This beautiful truth is as applicable to leadership as it is to art and science. Although one might amass a great deal of experience, the reality is that none of us can see into the future with any significant degree of fidelity. Pike was required to pursue unconventional solutions to address a seemingly intractable problem. As we might expect, he initially relied upon his training and experience. Yet, when this reasonable response failed him, Pike recognized that effective leadership is not about “winning” but successfully solving the problems that lay before us. He demonstrated his ability to pivot his decisions by actively soliciting ideas from his officers (basic leadership skill: communication) and taking the time to allow the nuances of the situation to reveal themselves (basic leadership skill: patience). Pike also worked to emotionally support his crew even when it seemed to many like their darkest hour was upon them (basic leadership skill: relationship).
By utilizing the basic leadership skills of communication, patience, and relationship, we can better lead the people and organizations we serve toward the future promised by Star Trek in which everyone has the opportunity to live gloriously. As Spock once observed, and as we saw from Pike in “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach,” logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end. Especially today, it is incumbent upon leaders to understand the importance of this lesson as they seek to utilize the basic leadership skills. The promise of Star Trek is a future characterized by knowledge and inclusion. We do not (yet) live in that future. Instead, let us look to Captain Pike as a model of what remains to be accomplished.
Jason A. Kaufman, Ph.D., Ed.D., (he/him) is a professor of educational leadership and director of the institutional review board at Minnesota State University, Mankato and a licensed psychologist. He is also co-host of the Dice in Mind podcast.
Aaron M. Peterson, Ed.D., (he/him) is an active researcher and most recently was an assistant professor of educational leadership as well as higher education and student affairs leadership at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. His research explores conflict engagement best practices for higher educational leaders, students and also the private sector.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S., Latin America, Australia & the Nordics. The series will air on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel & stream on Crave in Canada with additional international availability to be announced at a later date. The series is distributed by Paramount Global Content Distribution.