Star Trek holds some surprising insights into leadership.

A few years ago, I was working my way through Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everyone lauds Picard as a great leader, and at some point I got frustrated with it. I thought “All he does is ask his subordinates for options, then picks one of their suggestions”. Then I realized, That’s exactly why he’s a great leader.

Picard-style leadership overlaps heavily with my recent post on curiosity as an effective tool for practicing relational skills.

Picard has prestigious experience and deep expertise, but that’s not what we not what we normally see of him and it’s not what makes him an effective leader. Picard is an effective leader because he gets the right people talking, listens to his people, tests their ideas with questions, then takes accountability.

By focusing on questions but making the final call,

  • He can consistently spread praise and absorb blame
  • He creates an environment where he subordinates can voice their opinions freely and not worry about conflicting with is opinions
  • He creates many opportunities for subordinates to take ownership and shine with their own contributions
    • Ownership and praise also leads to better growth and autonomy
    • The crew is more empowered to act independently in emergency situations (a valuable trait for the Enterprise, which is constantly in new kinds of trouble)
  • He doesn’t have to be an expert in the diverse responsibilities on a ship, and he can more evenly/consistently manage all concerns on a ship without biasing to his specialties
  • He can more easily stay cool under fire. He doesn’t have to have answers, just guide the crew in working out the next steps

Picard has deep experience. There are probably many situations where he goes into a meeting with a pretty good idea of the answer. Yet he never voices his own ideas. He asks questions until he finds an answer he’s satisfied with. If he doesn’t get one, he sends the group away to generate more options (usually with a timebox). He doesn’t feel the need to be heard. His job is to hear others.

I think never voicing his opinions is a key part of Picard’s leadership style. It’s essential to many of the benefits above, like subordinates feeling like they can voice opinions without clashing with some idea he may reveal and creating a consistent feeling of ownership.
From this, I think Picard also demonstrates what leadership is not.

Some qualities that are not key to leadership, but are sometimes portrayed as leadership

  • A leader is not the most valued team member. Leading is more about valuing others than being valued
  • A leader shouldn’t just be the person everyone has to listen to. Leading is more about hearing others than being heard
  • Leaders aren’t necessarily experts in the skills they oversee
  • Leaders aren’t independent. The higher you go in leadership, the less of your responsible outcomes are something you could accomplish by yourself.
  • A leader needn’t be a critic or an explainer. There are other effective (and more empowering) ways to generate good ideas or educate.
  • A leader isn’t necessarily a problem solver. They can guide others in exploring solutions without having a solution of their own.

In summary, I think Picard is an excellent leader exactly because he doesn’t bring solutions of his own. He is confident in his own value and instead focuses on others. He primarily listens, facilitates communication, affirms good ideas, and takes accountability with a decisive selection from presented ideas.