DeM Banter: I have always believed there is extreme value in role models… can one believe in a fictional role model? IF so…Picard is a pretty good one…
“He’d ensure the safety of his ship and his crew
And then complete the mission
And make himself a better person
Bring peace to the galaxy
And do it for free
Oh yeah, that’s what Captain Picard would do.”
– from “What Would Captain Picard Do?” by Hank Green
Captain Jean-Luc Picard is the model of a great 24th Century Starfleet captain. On his watch, the crew of the Enterprise successfully defended humanity against the judgement of the Q-Continuum, defeated the Borg, prevented the Romulans from installing a puppet government in the Klingon Empire, and encountered countless new species.
Although Captain Picard’s style was very different from Captain Kirk’s, he was also an incredibly successful leader. Here are five lessons in leadership that can take away from Picard’s voyages as you take your organization on its journey to boldly go where no one has gone before.
1. Speak to people in the language they understand. (Or, it’s okay to threaten a Klingon.)
“In my experience, communication is a matter of patience and imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure.”
One of the key challenges to Captain Picard during his voyages was the problem of communication. Even in an era where universal translators could translate virtually every language imaginable, communication is more than just a matter of language. The different races that Picard encountered had their own cultures, customs and values. In order to work effectively with them, he mastered the ability to communicate with them on his own terms. When he was challenged by Klingons, he had no problem getting back in their faces and swearing at them. In Klingon culture, that’s how one earns respect. When he was confronted with the Sheliak, who refused to grant him more time to resettle colonists on a planet they wanted, he wrung concessions out of them through their hyper-detailed, legalistic manner of negotiation.
Perhaps no episode, though, demonstrates Picard’s willingness to put himself in someone else’s shoes than “Darmok.” In that episode, Picard and his crew meet with an alien race known as the Children of Tama. Although the ship’s translators could make their words comprehensible, their speech wasn’t, because it was entirely structured around metaphor and allusions to their myths. Noting this, the Tamarian captain kidnapped Picard and marooned them both on a world where they could face a common enemy. Over the course of their struggles, Picard was able to learn and understand the Tamarian language, paving the way towards greater understanding between the Tamarians and the Federation.
Perhaps one of the key skills for any good leader is the ability to empathize and understand the people they work with, both on their team and outside their organizations. This is especially true in a globalized world. People bring to the table not only their skills, but also their experiences, personalities, and cultures. Understanding those cultures and experiences enables you to effectively communicate.
2. When you’re overwhelmed, ask for help.
“You wanted to frighten us. We’re frightened. You wanted to show us we were inadequate. For the moment, I grant that. You wanted me to say ‘I need you.’? I NEED you!”
One of Picard’s constant foils was Q, a near-omnipotent being whose judgments of humanity bookend both the first and last entries of the TV series. One particularly memorable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was “Q Who?” where, in a fit of pique, Q sent the Enterprise light-years away from their location, where they made the Federation’s first contact with the Borg. The Borg are a race of cybernetic beings that share a collective consciousness. When they encounter new worlds, they assimilate the planets’ technology and people into themselves. Their technology was years ahead of the Federation, and it became clear that there was no way for the Enterprise to win the battle and save themselves.
So Picard asked Q for help, which Q granted.
That’s a hard thing to do. Especially in our individualist American culture, where there’s a level of expectation that you solve your problems on your own. That sort of independence is far from a bad quality – indeed, the ability to be independent is an important skill for leaders. But equally important is having enough self-awareness to know when you’re overwhelmed, when the odds are against you and when you know you can’t win the battle by yourself. In those situations, a prudent leader will ask for help.
That’s something that seems obvious, doesn’t it? But how many of us have refused to acknowledge that we need help at some point in our lives? How many of us have been on teams led by someone who was out of their depth but unwilling to seek out any guidance? It takes a great deal of confidence to admit that you need help. As Q said to Picard after Picard asked for help, “That was a difficult admission. Another man would have been humiliated to say those words. Another man would have rather died than ask for help.” How many of us have been on doomed projects because the project leader was too proud or too blind to ask for help?
When the time came, Picard wasn’t afraid to ask for help. That allowed him and his crew to fight another day – and on that day, they did defeat the Borg. When the time comes, a good leader will have that same confidence to ask for help so that they, too, can fight another day.
3. Always value ethical actions over expedient ones.
“There are times, sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders.”
Leaders of organizations are often faced with ethical dilemmas – times when it seems that the easiest option is to just “bend the rules a little” to get things done. Captain Picard, too, faced this type of decision on a number of occasions. But Picard had a strong moral center, and he refused to do the wrong thing – even when that seemed to be the easiest thing to do.
One such occasion was in one of the seminal episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Measure of a Man.” In that episode, Starfleet had ordered Lt. Commander Data, an android, to disassembly and experimentation in the hopes that Starfleet could manufacture more androids to put them in harm’s way on dangerous missions so that members of other species, such as humans, wouldn’t be subjected to the dangers of space flight. Aceding to that request would have been the easiest thing to do. After all, how many friends had Picard lost in his years in Starfleet. It must have seemed wonderful, to him, for there to be the potential to prevent such deaths. Starfleet didn’t recognize the rights of androids – to them, Data was just property.
However, instead of just taking the easy way out, Picard recognized that Data was a sentient being worthy of the rights of other members of the Federation. He argued Data’s case passionately in a Starfleet legal hearing, pointing out that creating a race of sentient beings who were compelled to enter into dangerous situations amounted to a re-institution of slavery. His argument was convincing, and led Starfleet and the Federation to respect Data’s rights. This paved the way for the rights of other sentient artificial intelligences to be recognized by the Federation later.
In your own job, you’ll probably never encounter a situation where you have to convince the government to recognize a new sentient species. (If you do have that job, though, that’s awesome and please email me for an interview.) But in leadership situations, there are a number of temptations to do the wrong thing to make yourself look better, whether that’s cutting corners to beat a schedule or gaming numbers to make your results look good. It’s in those times we should look to Picard as an example of maintaining our integrity, no matter the short-term costs. In the long-term, integrity is what matters.