Even if you think you hate Star Trek, or skipped the new movies out of reverence for the original cast, stay with me. Captain James Tiberius Kirk is a perfect illustration of how our greatest strengths — those assets fundamental to our leadership success — can also be our biggest nemesis. (And if you haven’t seen Star Trek Into Darkness, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers).
The movie kicks off with Kirk breaking the Prime Directive (that pesky rule stating that Starfleet personnel must never interfere with other societies or planets). Jim does so, though, to save an entire civilization. Reasonable, right? Kirk excels at reading situations and people, weighing risks, sifting through possible consequences, and acting.
But then Kirk falls into the trap we all are susceptible to — we make up our minds without conscious reasoning and then justify our reasoning after the fact. He lies about their actions in the report he submits to Starlet. And Spock doesn’t. They get hauled on the carpet in front of Kirk’s mentor, Admiral Pike. Kirk gives a million reasons as to why his actions were right.
But Pike actually renders Kirk speechless — he gets the young Captain Kirk to understand the dangers of his arrogance. And, Starfleet has spoken. Kirk loses command of the Starship Enterprise (this is all in the first few scenes of the movie, I’m not really spoiling anything. Honest!). Can you imagine acting out of your strengths and convictions, only to be fired and know that you probably deserve it? Do you want your strengths to take you there, as they did Kirk?
Yet what makes the movie is that not 10 minutes later (in theater time), Kirk “sees” a problem, knows something needs to be done, yet holds back just a moment too long because he is trying to curb that weakness of being a cocksure know-it-all. The result? People die.
You see, Starfleet truly needs all of Kirk, strengths and the related blind spots they may bring. For the rest of the movie, Kirk deals with the struggle between knowing and fearing his greatest strength.
And that’s the big message for leaders. Every strength, overdone, becomes a weakness. Life is about managing that tension. To do so, you need to
- First, understand your strengths
- Second, think deeply about how overusing them can create, or has created, problems
- Third, figure out how to get the most of the upside while avoiding the downside.
As Kirk continues to learn, when a leader goes toward the downside, he can take his whole crew with him. At least he knows enough to listen to his friends. As the book Geek Wisdom (Segal) summarizes the friendship of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, “We should all have friends who are similar enough to relate, but different enough to challenge us–who respect our thoughts and opinions even while they’re telling us how wrong we are” (p. 69).
The movie is a great Jungian hero’s journey. Watch it as pure adventure. Or, watch it with your internal eye searching for the leadership lessons you might learn a bit less painfully than Kirk.