Five Leadership Lessons From Jean-Luc Picard
by Alex Knapp
“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Challenge your team to help them grow.
“Lieutenant, you are a member of this crew, and you will not go into hiding whenever a Klingon vessel uncloaks!”
Oftentimes, the greatest challenge that a well-run team can face is complacency. When you have a great team where everyone is filling out their roles and doing a good job, it’s pretty easy to just let things lay the way they are and coast on inertia. The problem is, when you have a complacent team, no matter how competent they are, they can fall apart when they’re faced with a big challenge. In order to keep your organization nimble, it’s vital that you encourage your teams to stretch their capabilities, even if that makes them uncomfortable.
One of the more obscure, but favorite episodes of mine is “The Ensigns of Command,” where Picard ordered Data to a planet where Federation citizens had illegally colonized a planet belonging to the Sheliak. Data’s job was to get the colonists to evacuate before the Sheliak came, because they would kill all of the colonists when they arrived. Now, dealing with a group of impassioned humans fighting for their home wasn’t in Data’s comfort zone. After all, Data, as an android, didn’t have emotions and was often puzzled by them. But during that encounter, Data learned what it took to convince a hostile, emotional group to his way of thinking. That’s a lesson that paid off later in a future episode, when Data was assigned to command a ship with officers who were prejudiced against him for being an android. Without that prior experience, Data may have had a much more difficult commanding that ship, and they might not have successfully completed their mission.
Similarly, after Worf lost his honor in order to prevent the Klingon Empire from going to war, Picard still insisted that Worf deal with the Klingons who came to the Enterprise. He did that even though for Worf, facing other Klingons while he was dishonored caused him a great deal of distress and shame. By having Worf face his people, Worf came out of the end of his period of dishonor a much stronger Klingon, and later in both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, Worf was much more inclined to follow his conscience even if it shamed him in front of Klingons. In other words, Picard helped guide Worf into becoming a stronger and more capable man.
When you have someone on your team whose doing their job, and doing it well, it can be hard to assign them new or more difficult tasks in a way that shakes up your organization. But to be an effective leader, you need to shake them up, so that when your team faces harder crises, they’ll be more resilient and effective.
- Don’t play it safe – seize opportunities in front of you.
“Seize the time… – live now! Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
Captain Picard has a reputation for being a more cautious Captain than James T. Kirk, and in some ways that reputation is well-deserved. After all, Kirk took command of his Enterprise at the age of 31, while Picard was 59 when he took command of the Enterprise – D. But Picard had more responsibilities than Kirk, too. In Picard’s day, a starship wasn’t just home to members of Starfleet, but also the families of Starfleet personnel and their children. He had to be a little more cautious in a number of situations. But Picard’s caution wasn’t that of a coward or someone who desired to play it safe. Rather, it was the caution of a brave man whose youthful recklessness has been tempered by wisdom.
There are a number of occasions in which Picard was willing to take significant risks to seize opportunities to win the day for his ship and the Federation, and when he took those risks, he took them decisively. That ambition, and willingness to take opportunities in front of him, dates back to an incident when he was in the Academy. Then, he got involved in a bar brawl that resulted in his heart being destroyed and the young Picard nearly died. To the end of his days, he had an artificial heart instead of the one with which he was born.
In the episode “Tapestry,” Picard has a near-death experience in which he is visited by Q. Q gives him the opportunity to change one thing about his life, and Picard chooses to avoid the fight in which he lost his heart. At that point, Picard is thrust into the timeline that is the result of that act. In this timeline, Picard never rose above the rank of Lieutenant. He never got a command, because he had no goals. He drifted. He played it safe. And ultimately, his life didn’t amount to much. As Q put it to him when Picard asked for this new life to be taken away:
“The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did NOT fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is, or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda. Going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away-team on Milika III to save the ambassador, or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe. And he never, ever got noticed by anyone.”
It’s easy to get stuck like that alternate Picard. You can do your job, and at the end of the day go home, with no real plan or goal – just coasting while you let other people tell you what to do. The lesson Picard learned from this experience is the same one that we should learn for ourselves. Life is short, and the time we lose is time we’ll never get back again. When opportunities present themselves, we need to seize them. We need to go forth in our lives, careers and projects with goals and be ambitious about carrying those goals out.
Picard didn’t want to look back on a life of dull competence without distinction, risk or achievement. He told Q that he would rather die than live one more day like that. That’s a vital lesson we can apply to our own lives – we have to seize change for ourselves. Nobody’s going to do it for us.
Like James T. Kirk, Captain Jean-Luc Picard embodied several leadership lessons that we can use in our own lives. We need to learn to empathize with others so we can communicate with them effectively. We need to have the confidence to ask for help when we’re overwhelmed without feeling humiliated. When faced with the choice a famous wizard offered, between “what is right and what is easy,” we have to do what is right. We need to challenge our teams to grow and change so they can adapt to any situation. We need to seize opportunities as they come so that we don’t coast through our lives. Follow these lessons, and they’ll take us on the next stage of exploration. Which, in the words of Q on the show, is “not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”
This Leadership article was provided by a fellow OI Global Partner in Charlotte, NC. Bill Crigger and his team have been long standing supporters and colleagues.
~Dr. David C. Miles
Source: Forbes 3/5/2012. Click here for the original article.