Lessons in Business Culture from Star Trek

By Glen Hellman

As a leader, you get the culture you tolerate. Take Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise for example. Why do you think aliens were always taking over his ship? Why do you think that, in the three years Kirk lead the enterprise across the galaxy, he lost 13.7 percent of his crew — of which 73 percent wore red shirts (according to SiteLogic founder Matt Bailey)? Why do you think the shields always failed?

Let’s just look at Kirk’s C-level leaders, Chief Engineering Officer Scotty. “I can’t give you more speed, Captain. The engines are about to blow as it is.” And yet, he never failed. He always completed what he previously stated was impossible, just like you knew he would. What is that? If I was Captain Kirk, I’d say, “Stop being such a whiner and just do your job.” Really, did anyone ever believe that Scotty was going to fail?

Everyone on the crew and in the audience knew he was going to get it done. So shut up and do your job, Scotty — and I’ll give you the damn pat on the back that you crave so bad in the form of a paycheck.

Now we all know why Captain Kirk put up with Scotty. He was too busy trying to use his Intergalactic Starship Cruiser as bait to meet women that he didn’t enforce the kind of discipline required to run a high-performing ship. Here’s a man who was responsible for the lives of hundreds of crewman and who commanded the awesome technological power of the Enterprise. And how did he use that power? He used it as chick magnet. The Enterprise and the lives of his crew were his Porsche.

So what does this have to do with anything? How many times do you let someone say something, do something, behave unacceptably, and just let it go? That’s the start of a slide in culture that leads to the kind of performance that allows alliens to board your vessel, or wessel as Chekov would say, right before Kirk looked the other way as the Russian navigator was getting snockered on wodka.

And how about respect for the worker bee? The lowly Starfleet Red Shirt Security Officer had the most dangerous job in the universe. Race car driver, test pilots, alligator wrestlers have lower mortality rates than Enterprises Red Shirt crew members. Let’s face it, beaming down to a planet in a red shirt from the Enterprise was a death sentence and rarely required a round trip ticket.

If leaders are leading, they lead from the front, they don’t ask crew members to take risks that they and their leadership team would not readily accept themselves. Using your workers as cannon fodder returns a lack of enthusiasm, commitment, morale and leads to inferior performance.

Kirk’s replacement Piccard is the example of a true leader — and here’s why:

  1. He was focused on his mission and his crew and separated his personal needs from his job. He never displayed behavior that could lead his crew to believe that he wasn’t 100 percent committed to them and the mission.
  2. He modeled the behavior he expected from his crew. He demanded discipline and didn’t tolerate whining.
  3. He didn’t allow the kind of infighting with his senior management like the constant sniping between Spock and Dr. McCoy.

So the next time Romulans board your vessel; the next time you get caught with your sheilds down; think about how you “show up” at work. Think about how your team sees you. Think about what behavior you tolerate and be intentional about creating a company culture of high performance.

Glen Hellman is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and has worked for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He’s a principal at Driven Forward, board member at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, a Vistage coach, and a mentor at the Founder Institute. You can e-mail Hellman at glen@drivenforward.com.
Originally published: Dec 1, 2011

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