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Dave’s Diary: Captain Kirk’s Lessons In Leadership

Over the last few weeks I have shared advice for the graduating seniors from a variety of inspired sources.  Once more into the breach …but this time with wisdom gathered from the outer reaches of space.  That’s right. I have bold leadership lessons from where no man has gone before….Captain James T. Kirk of STARTREK fame… I don’t recall where I first saw this and I make no claims of any kind to its authorship but it’s pretty cool.

Kirk was a quintessential leader, who led his crew into the unknown and continued to succeed time and time again.  His style of command demonstrates a keen understanding of leadership and how to maintain a team that succeeds regardless of the dangers faced.  

 Beam up for five lessons in leadership from the golden boy of Starfleet Command!

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

1. Never Stop Learning
“You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown– only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”  No matter what your organization does, it helps to never stop learning. The more knowledge you have, the more creative you can be. The more you’re able to do, the more solutions you have for problems at your disposal. Sure, you might never have to face down a reptilian alien on a desert planet, but you never know what the future holds. Knowledge is your best key to overcoming whatever obstacles are in your way.

2. Have Advisors With Different Worldviews
Kirk’s closest two advisors are Commander Spock, a Vulcan committed to a philosophy of logic, and Dr. Leonard McCoy, a human driven by compassion and scientific curiosity. Both Spock and McCoy are frequently at odds with each other, recommended different courses of action and bringing very different types of arguments to bear. Kirk sometimes goes with one, or the other, or  takes their advice as a springboard to developing an entirely different course of action.  Weak leaders surround themselves with yes men who are afraid to argue with them fostering an organizational culture that stifles creativity and innovation. Organizations that allow for differences of opinion are better at developing innovation, better at solving problems, and better at avoiding groupthink.  

3. Be Part Of The Away Team
 Whenever an interesting or challenging mission came up, Kirk was always willing to put himself in harm’s way by joining the Away Team. With his boots on the ground, he was always able to make quick assessments of the situation, leading to superior results.   Kirk was very much a hands-on leader, leading the vanguard of his crew as they explored interesting and dangerous situations. When you’re in a leadership role, it’s sometimes easy to let yourself get away from leading Away Team missions…. it’s sometimes easy to trap yourself in the corner office and forget what life is like on the front lines. When you lose that perspective, it’s that much harder to understand what your team is doing, and the best way to get out of the problem.   Kirk’s crew trusted his decisions, because he knew the risks of command personally.

4. Play Poker, Not Chess
 I love chess as much as the next geek, but chess is often taken too seriously as a metaphor for leadership strategy. For all of its intricacies, chess is a game of defined rules that can be mathematically determined. It’s ultimately a game of boxes and limitations. A far better analogy to strategy is poker, not chess. Life is a game of probabilities, not defined rules. And often understanding your opponents is a much greater advantage than the cards you have in your hand.  Bluffs, tells, and bets are all a big part of real-life strategy. Playing that strategy with an eye to the psychology of our competitors, not just the rules and circumstances of the game can often lead to better outcomes.

5. Blow up the Enterprise
We are often, in our roles as leaders, driven by a passion. It might be a product or service, it might be a way of doing things. But no matter how much that passion burns within us, the reality is that times change. Different products are created. Different ways of doing things are developed. And there will come times in your life when that passion isn’t viable anymore. A time when it no longer makes sense to pursue your passion. When that happens, no matter how painful it is, you need to blow up the Enterprise. That is, change what isn’t working and embark on a new path, even if that means having to live in a Klingon ship for awhile.

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