I had a great idea for a post lined up for today. Sadly, it looks like Alex Knapp at Forbes beat me to it, by about a year. Mr. Knapp, I curse your good taste and superior sense of timing. Fortunately, I had this post mostly written before finding Mr. Knapp’s article, and it seems that, although we were both inspired by the same source material, we took very different (though equally valuable) leadership lessons from it.
One of my all-time favorite shows is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hulu recently provided free streaming of the entire series during the end of March, and I had a chance to catch up on some great episodes I hadn’t seen in years.
Looking back at the series now, one thing that struck me is how closely Captain Jean-Luc Picard resembles Jim Collins’ description of “Level Five Leadership” in his classic business book Good to Great. As Collins describes it, Level Five leaders “act quietly, calmly and determinedly—relying on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate.” Picard may not have had the animal charisma of Captain Kirk, but he’s a much better representation of what makes a good leader in Starfleet, or in business.
For both science-fiction and business geeks a like, let’s take a look at six lessons in leadership you can learn from Jean-Luc Picard.
1. Put the mission before yourself.
In the episode “Contagion”, the Enterprise and another Federation starship commanded by one of Picard’s best friends float next to each other in space. Picard is in the middle of a conversation with his friend when the other ship explodes. Despite suddenly and unexpectedly witnessing the death of one of his closest friends, Picard doesn’t hesitate. “Shields up!” he commands. Although horrified, his reflex is immediately to protect his ship and his crew. Even in his worst moments, Picard always thinks of the good of the team first.
2. Be willing to look foolish.
In “Menage a Trois,” Picard must rescue a Federation ambassador who is being held by a Ferengi ship against her will. The only way to get her back safely is to pretend to be a jealous lover, not an easy task for the famously stoic Picard. Nonetheless, the captain gamely launches into a Shakespearean sonnet and pronounces his undying love in front of his amused crew. Although the degrading ruse makes him obviously uncomfortable, Picard is willing to cast aside his pride to accomplish his mission.
3. Know your organization inside and out.
“Do you know where we are?” asks Nella Daren in “Lessons”, while she and Picard crawl through one of the Enterprise’s access tubes. “Fourth intersect in Jeffries tube 25” Picard says without pausing. In a later episode, Picard is trapped alone on the Enterprise with a group of thieves that he has to outwit using his in-depth knowledge of his ship. The viewer suspects that Picard has the ship’s entire schematics memorized. Whether it’s a question of the Enterprise’s warp speed capabilities, internal design, or the names of his crewmembers, Picard knows it backwards and forwards. The Enterprise, both the ship itself and its crew, are Picard’s organization, and he makes it his business to know as much as he can about it.
4. Willing to sacrifice.
Picard isn’t just willing to let others take all the risks. Even though he’s captain of the ship, when the situation calls for it, he’s always ready to put himself in harm’s way for the good of the mission. It’s equally important for business leaders to be willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of their organizations. This might come in the form of working longer hours than the rest of your team, or taking a pay cut to open space in the budget to make sure your employees are sufficiently rewarded. Being willing to sacrifice won’t just help the other members of your team: it can help earn their respect for you. And that, in the long run, is in your best interests as a leader.
5. Fight for the people you lead.
Early in the series, Picard must defy his superiors in order to protect Data, an android member of his crew who has been ordered to allow himself to be disassembled in order to help learn more about how he is made. The captain mounts a passionate legal defense of his crewmember. As a leader, nothing is more important than the men, women and, well, androids that serve under him, and he goes to extraordinary lengths to protect them.
6. Be willing to trust, even when it’s a risk.
We can’t spend all of our professional lives dealing only with forthright, honorable people who work for us. Sometimes we have to deal with unqualified team members, unscrupulous competitors, difficult suppliers…or Romulans. In short: we have to deal with people we sometimes have no reason to trust. And sometimes the only way to deal with those situations is to take a risk and make a leap of faith. This decision won’t always be the right one: sometimes you will be betrayed by people in whom you placed your trust. But, as Picard teaches us, sometimes the only way to win is to gamble on the other party’s good faith.
That’s it! If you have any other leadership lessons you’ve learned from Captain Jean-Luc Picard, we’d love to hear about it!