Much has been written about the conditions necessary for the effective practice of leadership. Yet, the research is quite mixed and rather little is actually agreed upon regarding what makes a good leader. In our teaching, we instead have sought to offer students a set of basic leadership skills that can be readily implemented in their own learning and practice. These basic leadership skills include communication, patience, and relationship.
Communication is essential to effectively leading any group or organization. The ability to effectively convey pertinent information in speaking and writing is necessary to both guide and empower those one leads. Inherent to clear communication is the ability to be patient when solving problems. Patience is based upon the ability to stop, think, and listen to others prior to reacting to a situation provides opportunities for improved self-regulation and more thoughtful decision-making. The importance of patience should speak for itself but often does not. Ultimately, thoughtful communication and patient decision-making support the ability to effectively interact with others. Relationship is the foundation of successful leadership in the final calculation. Working transparently and supportively with those we lead promotes human growth and organizational effectiveness.
One of the ways we have sought to teach the basic leadership skills is through the use of case studies. Star Trek provides a source of role models for leadership through its more than 50 years of television, film, and streaming content. Especially notable have been the examples set forth by the “grand captains.” They are leaders who have sat in the captain's chair and demonstrated insights into leadership through both their strengths as well as compensating for their flaws. From the groundbreaking episodes of The Original Series as it tackled such perennial societal challenges as racism and war to the more recent efforts of Picard to explore the risks of xenophobic thinking and identity politics, we have found that Star Trek provides a window into a possible future grounded in both head and heart.
Specifically, we use brief clips from some of our favorite episodes and films to enliven lectures, promote discussion, and encourage self-reflection among our students. We cannot help but have a little fun through the process along the way. Some of our students think us to be a bit quirky; others become drawn into the lore of canon as they ponder the decisions of the grand captains displayed at the front of the classroom or these days on their devices at home.
Importantly, the diversity of representation among the grand captains help us to model for our students the beauty in how manifold ideas and peoples can offer us a glimpse into the potential for compassionately enlightened leadership to make our current world a better place. Much as Gene Rodenberry intended, we have seen how Star Trek can provide an on-ramp for students from all walks of life to interact upon common ground. In this way, Star Trek helps us to welcome all of our students to the enterprise of leadership by creating an environment that welcomes everyone.
The Grand Captains
So, how does this look in practice? During a given class, we rely on a grand captain to demonstrate the basic leadership skills of communication, patience, and relationship through their respective styles. We then guide our students through an analysis of their success. Leaders are as diverse as the rest of us. In this manner, each of the grand captains offers an example of a unique individual seeking to do their best in trying situations.
Jonathan Archer found himself at a unique point in the history of humanity’s expansion across the galaxy. He demonstrated how even an "adolescent explorer" can manifest positive leadership qualities. Although challenged by his ready sense of frustration, Archer nonetheless demonstrated an ability to leverage communication, patience, and relationship with his crew. He quickly developed a reputation for his willingness to share his thoughts with others prior to acting. Archer’s transparency in problem-solving and ostensible lack of ulterior motive similarly endeared him to his crew. Somewhat counterintuitively, such openness in communication also allowed Archer to demonstrate a degree of patience. As one who often struggled to keep his cool, Archer’s willingness to speak his mind offered a salve to others during times of challenge. Crucially for such a leader, Archer was understood to be a leader who welcomed input and recognized the strengths in others.
Christopher Pike was known in his time as the most decorated officer in the history of Starfleet. He demonstrated how a "reluctant warrior" can evince strength and compassion even during the worst of times. Pike’s style of communication was formal but balanced by an ability to be flexible in response to new information and perspectives from his crew. Moreover, Pike demonstrated himself to be a patient leader. He regularly pondered problems before taking action, first soliciting input from his crew. By encouraging others to leverage their strengths, Pike utilized relationship as a powerful tool in leadership. He similarly demonstrated an ability to master pride and fear. Pike never appeared to care about his accomplishments. His first duty was to the crew under his command and their safekeeping. No matter the direness of the situation, Pike made the conscious choice to continue the mission. In doing so, he demonstrated how not to let fear dictate his future.
James Tiberius Kirk might have been the most famous, if not infamous, captain in all of Starfleet. He demonstrated how a "charismatic cowboy" can effectively lead when tempered by sound ethical judgment. Kirk had a relatively playful style of communication with many on his crew, but always with a tone of respect and a firmness behind his orders. He was not a particularly patient leader except in times of aggression. Indeed, Kirk surrounded himself with highly competent people who could (and would) hold him accountable as he made decisions. In this manner, Kirk utilized relationship with a deft hand. His unwavering commitment to his crew was regularly made clear through the honesty of his actions.
Benjamin Sisko demonstrated the importance of leadership during one of the greatest existential threats to ever face the Federation. He portrayed how an "ethical pragmatist" must wrestle with questions of right and wrong. Rarely one to hide his emotions, Sisko communicated with his crew in a manner that honestly exposed his struggles to navigate thorny problems. The result was that his crew could look to him as a model of honesty. Sisko also manifested a relatively hot temper. Yet, he regularly channeled that passion into supporting his people. The result was that Sisko utilized relationship by presenting a fully human model of open and supportive leadership.
Kathryn Janeway was unique among the grand captains of Star Trek for finding herself in the most untenable of situations. She demonstrated an ability to be a "tireless thinker" amidst constant challenge. Grounded in a humanistically scientific worldview, she displayed a clear and concise style of communication. Janeway’s actions were measured to the point of refraining from the use of force even at great peril. Most notably, Janeway perceived her people as family. She made a point to develop relationships with everyone.
Jean-Luc Picard had one of the most notable careers among the grand captains. His unflinching commitment to personal integrity was evident among his crew. This was a trait balanced by his openness to competing perspectives. He epitomized the qualities of a "diplomatic scholar" in his style of leadership. Clear and commanding in his communication, Picard actively requested feedback from his crew and treated his senior staff much as peers. His ability to leverage patience in search of equitable solutions to problems was widely respected. A very private individual, Picard nonetheless used relationship to promote the personal development of his crew. He eventually became more open to interpersonal warmth, and in spite of his eventual fame maintained an abiding sense of humility.
Michael Burnham exhibited the potential that resulted from an inability to be held back by failure. She gave proof to how a “fearless believer” in the potential of the people can lead in an uncertain future. Without question, it took a significant amount of experience (and 930 years of travel time) before Burnham developed an ability to meaningfully communicate with others. Once she did so, however, Burnham was able to offer a hard-won patience in solving problems. Perhaps even more importantly, she became able to relate with those she led on a more personal level. The result was a leader able to adapt to the challenges of a far future.
Making It So
The world is currently experiencing a time of crisis. The COVID-19 global pandemic has affected how we live, work, and interact with one another on a global scale. The actions at Organia or to bring the Romulans into war with the Dominion might be science-fiction, but studying them can help us to practice our basic leadership skills in preparation for actual crises. The grand captains of Star Trek provide examples to the potential of communication, patience, and relationship in the service of leadership. Kirk taught us that “there’s no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” The grand captains of Star Trek empower our students and ourselves with the vision to become leaders who can guide our world toward a more just and caring future reality.
Jason A. Kaufman (he/him) is a professor of educational leadership at Minnesota State University, Mankato and a licensed psychologist . He is also co-host of the Dice in Mind podcast.
Aaron M. Peterson (he/him) is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Minnesota State University-Moorhead and a qualified mediator. He also takes to the skies as a pilot in his spare time.