The Business Wisdom of Star Trek

I had the occasion to watch one of the latest Star Trek movies again the other day and it occurred to me that this was actually a wonderful metaphor for some business concepts quite a few people seem to struggle with. Let me explain. One of the questions I frequently ask middle and upper management candidates during job interviews is to describe the difference between management and leadership.  Simple right? The responses I get are all over the board and often wildly inaccurate.

In the most basic terms, I see management as ensuring smooth, effective and efficient operations. Predictability is desirable and surprises are best avoided. Leadership on the other hand is about vision, inspiration, motivation, change and risk. If you define faith as belief without evidence then leadership is about faith. It is about plunging into the unknown and taking the risk that the outcome will be favorable. By its very nature, that can be very disruptive and antithetical to the aims and objectives of good management. I think the challenge for many business leaders and managers is how to reconcile and balance these two opposing forces given that most people have stronger predilections or talents in one or the other direction.

So what does this have to do with Star Trek you ask? Well, the primary mission of the Starship Enterprise and its crew is “to boldly go where no one has gone before – to explore strange new worlds etc., etc.). This sounds like a pretty big risk and more than mildly disruptive to me. “Hey crew-dude in the red jersey. Step into the transporter room and let’s beam out. The chances of a return trip (for you anyway) are slim to none, but we’re all going just the same. Sorry you can’t call in sick or disobey orders buddy. C’mon it’ll be fun.” And off they all go without so much as a reluctant look over their shoulder. These people are comfortable with risk in extremis. On the other hand, for the Enterprise to even function on a basic level, let alone zoom out to the stars and outwit or outfight technologically superior opponents, the crew and their operations have to be ultra efficient.


Captain Jim Kirk is a swashbuckling and adventurous leader with no compunctions about closing his eyes and jumping off the cliff, real or metaphorical. He has utmost faith that he and his crew will prevail against any long shot odds. Not everyone on board innately shares his belief, but they all do their jobs perfectly and follow him to the ends of the galaxy. He thinks outside the box, the rules and any historical precedent to succeed.  This guy is a Leader with a capital “L” and although his middle name is pronounced Tiberius, it should probably be spelled “Change”.

Since change is generally the antithesis of predictable and smooth operations, how does Capt. Kirk succeed so admirably in this role given his patently unpredictable leadership qualities?  Where Kirk is all about emotional connection and shooting from the hip, his Vulcan Second Officer Mr. Spock is driven by pure logic, or least wants everyone to think he is. Logic and the complete restraint of human emotions is in fact the hallmark of a good Vulcan.  From a managerial perspective, these would seem to be desirable qualities. If the Enterprise were a business, Mr. Spock’s title might be considered something more akin to a COO to Capt. Kirk’s CEO role. So given his rank and personal predisposition, Spock appears perhaps the best candidate to exert control on the good Captain’s loose cannon leadership style. However, despite his logic and clear moderating influence on Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock is not the real savior in this balancing act.

I would posit that award goes to Dr. Leonard McCoy. The good doctor in fact serves the same role critical in moderating any business looking to help balance these two competing forces. McCoy serves as an agent for positive resistance to change. Since not all change is positive or beneficial by default, having a mechanism or devil’s advocate examining and positively critiquing change is often the sole factor keeping the train from derailing. This is frequently very challenging in practice with a strong charismatic leader such as Jim Kirk. Dr. McCoy’s grumpy negative manner only thinly masks a real connection to human emotion, empathy and care for all those around him. The Captain and crew all see these qualities and it lends him real credibility. Leonard McCoy is a true secret weapon in the Enterprise’s already formidable arsenal. As a medical doctor, McCoy is also in the rare position of legally being able to relieve the Captain of his duties without resorting to outright mutiny. This gives him tremendous unspoken power and serves as a true reality check for Kirk.  More so in both theory and practice than Spock as First Officer.

There is a lot of opportunity for job enrichment, enlargement and rotation for most crewmembers. For example, in the latest movies, Mr. Chekov might be the most proficient with the Transporter Room, but tons of others can use it competently and Scotty even discovered the equations that made ship-to-ship transport possible at trans-warp speeds. He literally wrote the rulebook as it were. Sometimes a crewmember is busy on the bridge pushing buttons and twirling dials and sometimes they are buzzing around chasing baddies with phasers on stun. Never a dull moment, but it is also an unusual combination of predictable job activity mixed with moments of profound change, danger and novel experience. All crewmembers get the chance to take existing skillsets and stretch them beyond all previous experience. This leads them down the path of mastery so there are enormous incentives as well as job satisfaction built right in. They enjoy the luxury of better communication, control and self-determination than employees in virtually any business organization are likely to experience despite operating within a military command structure. When thing get dicey or unduly threatening, senior management in the form of James T. Kirk almost always broadcasts the situation to the entire crew so there is transparency all along. Capt. Kirk is not a theorist or an armchair pilot. He leads from the front so his crew doesn’t feel alone in taking risks or plunging into uncharted waters. He believes he will succeed and so they do as well.

The spirit of innovation infects everyone on the Enterprise. When Chief Engineer Montgomery. Scott replies to one of Capt. Kirk’s absurd last minute life or death requests for a truly innovative solution, his response has actually been “I canna break the laws of physics Captain, I’ve got to have 12 hours…” Jim Kirk’s rebuttal is typically something like “…you’ve got 5 hours Scotty…” The implication being that after 5 hours it won’t matter anymore. Everyone will be dead. Mr. Scott always comes up with some brilliant just in time (JIT) creative solution that doesn’t actually break the laws of physics, but does bend the hell out them, thereby saving the day and usually Capt. Kirk’s life. He has the skills, the belief and the permission to think as far outside the box as he wants in order to be an effective innovator and problem-solver.

In terms of traditional roles within a business organization, it’s possible to find more analogs among the senior staff serving on board the Enterprise too.  As mentioned above, it’s not hard to imagine Mr. Spock as the COO to James Kirk as CEO, but where does that leave some of the others?

Mr. Scott serves as the ships CTO where he runs a tight engineering department of capable professionals involved with keeping everything from food replicators, to the transporter room to the warp-drive engines all functioning at peak operational efficiency.  As a manager, Mr. Scott is supremely competent and as it turns out so too as a leader and visionary. Scotty is frequently called upon to invent solutions that require creativity, speed and extreme technical acumen. In some respects, he could probably be considered Chief Creative Officer (CCO) as much as Chief Engineer and his department closer akin to R&D. This engineering microcosm is a clear reflection of the larger ship’s macrocosm in the way it balances management and leadership.

Lieutenant Uhura as Communications Guru knows precisely what their target audience is saying and how to dialog with them most effectively, providing of course that dialog is even possible. If it isn’t, she’ll tell you. Her ability to translate virtually any language they encounter and read intent or need tacitly between the lines is nothing short of miraculous.  Like any good Director of Marketing Communications, she also knows when to withhold or carefully edit messaging and directives when necessary.  If you keep examining things, it’s not hard to make more comparisons between Star Trek crewmembers and many common job descriptions found in most business organizations of any size.

In the original series, perhaps the largest failing in holding up the Enterprise as a business model or operational panacea is how it treated its ordinary staff. In fact, I might even go as far as to say it more closely resembled some kind of business dystopia then – at least as far as the rank and file were concerned.  Fortunately the new movie series created by J.J. Abrams does not share this old school attitude of a “disposable” worker bee. I am talking here of the much-discussed joke about crew members beaming out into the unknown sporting the infamous red jerseys. These poor unfortunates virtually never returned to the ship. They were cannon fodder pure and simple.  While this was a more common contemporary attitude in the 1960’s it has thankfully faded from favor in most (but sadly not all) current business organizations. In the new series, Captain Kirk proudly boasts to his superior officers that he has never lost a crew-member. In this current version of the show, all crew are irreplaceable members of the team and know their own value is not unrecognized or unappreciated by upper management (or the writers and producers).


Despite some of these quaintly archaic, albeit rare reflections of a less enlightened era, Star Trek was also ahead of its time in other areas such as cultivating a more diverse workplace, better attempts at trying to understand and communicate with beings, cultures and civilizations far different from out own. Women, minorities and aliens commanded starships, entire fleets and governments for example.  There are many other examples of more forward thinking and enlightened attitudes baked into the series by its creator Gene Roddenberry, but of course most of these are by now well known and endlessly discussed.

What I haven’t really come across before in these discussions, are some of the more effective techniques frequently used by contemporary business managers with their teams.  Many are more or less business school standard now, but at the time of the original TV series, they were probably rare indeed. These include concepts such as job enlargement, job rotation, job enrichment and removing demotivators to name but a few.  For example, in the latest movies when Kirk and Spock leave the ship, Mr. Sulu is given command and with it, the complete discretion to act as he sees fit. And he turns out to be a real champ in the role; improvising and leading while still maintaining operational efficiencies aboard ship.  When Chief Engineer Scott vacates the Enterprise, Mr. Chekov assumes the role and performs with similar excellence.  Many episodes demonstrate these principles and techniques over and over. They model good business practices and often prototype newer and potentially more effective methods of balancing management and leadership. Now when I watch the series, I wonder which attitudes, methods and techniques employed on board the Enterprise will find their way into the business practices of today or tomorrow.

Captain Kirk also seems to have an innate ability to align the personal needs and goals of each contributing member of the crew, with the larger ones of the ship, or organization if you want to term it that. He creates real synergies and strong working relationships through the methods and leadership qualities he demonstrates. People know not only what they are doing, but also why they are doing it and that makes all the difference. This is something leadership business guru Simon Sinek talks about and it’s a powerful concept. What Mr. Sinek says is “first ask why”. This simple idea put in practice gives everyone on the ship a common and aligned purpose.  It’s not so much the quantity of resources available that gives the ship and its crew so much success, but the manner in which they are aligned. The Enterprise acts as a true example of a well-functioning organizational team in the same way most businesses can only aspire to.

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