toy figurine of captain kirk

To Boldly Go Where No Organisation Has Gone Before – Leadership Lessons from Captain Kirk

James T. Kirk is one of the most renowned and beloved Captains in the history of Starfleet, and with good reason. Kirk holds the record for being the youngest Captain in Starfleet history (at age 34 years), whilst further forging a reputation for independent, gung-ho type operations, which often bucked the system, yet produced results that could not be argued with. Kirk’s rapid rise to the rank of Captain is reflected in the plethora of awards bestowed on him, culminating in his Captaincy of the Enterprise, where his unique leadership and relationship style with subordinates is truly honed. On the Enterprise, Kirk forges relationships with fellow Officers who themselves become legends in their own right (think; Spock, Dr McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov and Uhura), the product of which leading to the salvation of Starfleet on many an occasion.    

Kirk’s legendary status and leadership success did not occur by chance.  Kirk’s success is defined by his effectiveness as leader, which is primarily as a result of his constant challenging of his crew to reach new horizons, a hands-on approach to leading, and finding the “third-option” when dealing with problem situations. 

Whilst Kirk is certainly a fictional character, there are lessons to be learnt from his interactions with his crew.  Here are five key lessons from Captain Kirk’s methodology that you can use to effectively lead your organisation into an uncertain future.

1. Stay Curious

Whilst Kirk is perhaps better known for his suave, ‘ladies-man’ exterior, his reputation at the Starfleet Academy was that of a “walking stack of books”. Furthermore, in many instances, Kirk demonstrated an unparalleled knowledge of his ship and her workings, famously stating that; “You have to learn why things work on a starship.” Kirk’s knowledge of both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ enabled him to come up with creative solutions to many untenable situations, as seen in his famous beating of the Kobayashi Maru exercise, which he reprogrammed, as he did not believe in a “no-win scenario”. Yes, Kirk cheated and beat the scenario, however, it was his knowledge of the system that he faced that allowed him to overcome a challenge designed to be unbeatable.

When applied to organisational operations, the wise leader is the one who constantly keeps up to date with what their competitors are not focusing on, and ensures that they are well read on a variety of topics relating to their field and business. Warren Buffett is well known for doing his homework before parting with his money, and this enables him to almost always ensure a positive return on investment. Similarly, Steve Jobs was known for being well read and up to speed on a variety of topics, even those that were not directly related to his field. In a nutshell then, doing your homework, keeping up to speed with industry (and even unrelated) events and keeping an eye on what others are missing is a tested and proven methodology in ensuring continued business success. However, one person can only have so much perspective, and we are inherently prone to our own biases and heuristics. This is where the second lesson becomes crucial.

2. Surround Yourself with Differing Viewpoints

At the onset of his Captaincy of the Enterprise, Kirk is very much a lone wolf, a rebel who is not reliant on others. Besides his trusted confidant “Bones” McCoy, Kirk is very much a one man show. This changes quickly however, with the Enterprise running into various conflict situations, Kirk learns to listen to what his people have to say, and rely on their expertise, even when their approach and manner is very much different from his own. 

The odd-ball mix of characters actually end up working exceptionally well together, with Spock’s rule of logic, devoid of emotion, McCoy’s quick, dry wit, urgency and short-temper, Scotty’s principled and outspoken engineering genius and Kirk’s no-holds-barred, rule breaking approach, all of which acting in unison to create a highly effective, yet motley team.  

The secret to the success is that diversity breeds prosperity. In the end, each of the people are able to make up for the other’s deficits, whilst bringing a variety of viewpoints to decision making situations. Kirk further ensures success here by delegating tasks to his crew when he knows they are more capable than himself, yet, takes full accountability for their actions.

The take home here for organisations is simple. Many boardrooms are plagued by meetings characterised by groupthink rather than innovation, with people being more concerned with consensus-building and self-censorship, than tackling the issues, as they are, head-on. The unfortunate reality is that weak leaders often surround themselves with ‘yes-men’ who are afraid to provide differing perspectives. 

By surrounding themselves with people who are not afraid to provide a different perspective, and speak of issues as they truly are, effective leaders are able to gain true perspective on organisational issues, whilst fostering real innovation and problem-solving. Furthermore, when subordinates know that their leader ‘has their back’ and will not shy away from taking full responsibility for their actions, their actions are not guarded by the need to protect their place in the team (which often leads to groupthink by way of self-censorship of key issues) and will instead be focused on the critical analysis and creative solving of problem issues. 

However, in order to foster and grow subordinate trust and respect, leaders must at times roll up their sleeves and join the front lines, which brings us to lesson number three.

3. Be ‘Hands-On’ and Join the Away Missions

Kirks idiosyncrasies aside, he was known for being a hands-on leader, always ready to place himself in harm’s way and join the Away Team missions. Kirk’s approach in this regard resulted in many successful missions, in which he was able to continue to use the rapport built with his teams to effect real results in the field.

The essence of Kirk’s actions here is simple; if you want your people to trust and believe in you, you need to get into the thick of it with them. Truth be told, Kirk had no need to go out and join away missions, that is what his First Officer was for, yet he cut through the ranks, and joined his people on the ground. Unfortunately, many leaders today find themselves cocooned by the niceties of being in the upper echelons of power. Regrettably, this same cocoon often causes leaders to lack the perspective required of what is truly happening at grass-roots level in their organisations. Leaders must attend many meetings and make crucial decisions, and much of this is unavoidable, yet, these same things create distance and sometimes, through a lack of communication, even avarice between leaders and subordinates.

The take away here is that when leaders roll up their sleeves and join their people in the front lines, they foster not only the respect of their employees, but also their trust. Taking the time to be with and work with employees at various levels in your organisation is a relatively easy way with which to gain perspective on what is really happening on the shopfloor, and how work is experienced by your employees. 

4. Be Prepared to Improvise

Kirk is no stranger to bending, and often all together breaking the rules in favour of results. Kirk is known for holding the record for breaking the Prime Directive 11 times and the Temporal Prime Directive 17 times, a career record which still stands to date.

Improvisation then appears to be an important tool in Kirk’s arsenal of tactical decision-making. 

For instance, in Star Trek into Darkness, the Enterprise is stranded, this after being severely damaged in an attack by a covert, Starfleet battlecruiser. With critical damage, and still under the very real threat of destruction, Kirk has to improvise in order to gain access to the battlecruiser and attempt to save the Enterprise. There is a catch however, the transporters are offline. Kirk circumvents the problem by engaging in a very dangerous space jump into the hatch of the battlecruiser.   

Any leader will attest to the fact that plans do not always pan-out, and that more often than not, there will be obstacles along the way. What is critical however is how a leader is able to harness the power of multiple subordinate viewpoints together with their own intuition and key knowledge of systems, processes and behaviour in order to improvise and find a successful outcome.

The take-home lesson then? Sometimes playing by the rules does not allow a leader to win at the game of business. In other words, sometimes it is favourable to ignore the business playbook in favour of following the guidance of your people, the experience of your intuition and understanding the psychology of your competitors in order to achieve meaningful results. 

With that said, whilst all these aspects can be key in making critical business moves, it is equally important to have appropriate counsel to see you through such processes. In other words, it is always beneficial to learn from those who have come before you, and harness their wisdom and experience in your own actions, which brings us to lesson number five.   

5. Have a Mentor and Be One

Prior to his enlisting in Starfleet, Kirk frequently found himself in all sorts of trouble, probably as a result of him not having a defined purpose or realising the true nature of his talents. Captain Pike (in the most recent Star Trek films) discovers Kirk, and encourages him to enlist in Starfleet, this in honour of his father’s memory. Fast-forward a few years, and Kirk finds himself in the position of saving his mentor from a deranged Romulan, and ultimately taking command of the Enterprise.

In classic Kirk style however, he soon breaches the prime-directive, which lands him in deep waters with Starfleet and the consequent demotion of his captaincy. Pike, having been given command of the Enterprise again, plays a critical role in providing Kirk with counsel and wisdom when he requests Kirk as his First Officer. Pike’s role in Kirk’s life is critical in Kirk maturing and developing humility, both of which enable his consequent successes aboard the Enterprise after his reinstatement to Captain.

In the business world, as in Starfleet, good leadership is cultivated through the sharing of wisdom and experience by those who have come before oneself and in turn, sharing such lessons with those who are moving up the ranks. In essence it becomes more than just ‘growing your own timber’ when one takes the time to be an example, and provide counsel to your subordinates, doing this instils a sense of community, purpose and trust in those who follow you.

Whilst there is a time and place for autocratic style leadership, using affiliative, visionary type leadership is a critical ingredient in ensuring that your team aims towards a unified objective, and feels that they are being provided with the tools to succeed, whilst knowing that you ‘have their backs’ and will support them during difficulties.