On Leadership


Until relatively recently, there was a running joke among trekkies that only the even-numbered films were any good. This is generally true, but as a die-hard fan, I’ve obviously seen all the the films. Without giving too much away, in Star Trek 3: the search for Spock, Captain Kirk borrows the USS Enterprise against orders in order to rescue a friend (you’ll never guess who) from a planet which was recently formed in a science experiment. As SciFi films go, it isn’t terrible, but the writing is poor and it is full of clichés and corny lines. The film was also marred by Kirstie Alley not returning to the cast and her character having to be filled by a much less-talented actress.

There is, however, one line in the film which has stuck with me over the years.

“Jim… you do this, and you’ll never sit in that captain’s chair again”

Kirk is about to steal the Enterprise, the federation’s flagship, on what is basically a personal mission borne out of loyalty to a friend. He is being pursued by another captain in another starship (which, by the way, has been sabotaged so that they can’t give chase; a fact that the pursuing captain is not yet aware of). Predictably enough, Kirk responds with “engage” at which point the Enterprise goes to warp speed and the Excelsior (the other ship) discovers that it can’t.

There are many examples, of course, but this for me represents one of the best demonstrations of Kirk’s leadership. In that moment, he reveals why he became famous as the captain of the Enterprise, why he is spoken of in such high regard, and why his enemies fear him. He is well-aware of the chain of command, and is intimately familiar with starfleet regulation, as is demonstrated time and time again in his many adventures, but importantly he possesses the boldness and irreverence which allows him to occasionally step outside the bounds, when it is important, and to take big risks. In that moment, he weighed the risk of falling afoul of starfleet command and not having command of his own ship against the importance of his friendship. An irrational decision to be sure, but a very human one, and one which demonstrates that even among all the calculation and balancing of priorities that good leaders must inevitably do, one must never forget what one is, and in this moment, Kirk was remembering that he was human.

I have learned more about leadership from watching Star Trek than I should probably admit, but it’s a little-known fact that I’ve been a student of leadership since I was very young. Why? I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind, I saw myself as one day becoming a great leader. I no longer think that I will, but in my own small way, I’ve been able to apply the knowledge and skills that I’ve learned to the various small leadership roles I’ve had to fulfil. In my travels, I’ve observed many different leadership styles, and different personalities, each with their own ways of being effective (or not). And although I almost never ask for it, I find myself being thrust into positions of responsibility more often than should happen merely by chance.

One of the more obvious examples of this is being president of my roller skating club, and also of the Amnesty group at Melbourne University. These are clear leadership positions, with defined responsibilities and the theoretical authority which comes with any elected office. During this time (I was about 19) I learned a great deal about what it meant to be a leader, what it means to motivate people, and the impact of an individual’s personality on their position. The ability to synthesise information and distill it – that is, to take the same basic skill of reading a book, and then summarising the main points, but applying it to communications with different people, who hear things in different ways. To see through what people say, and figure out what they really mean, what motives them and why, and then to take this information on a group of people in order to arbitrate, mediate, or otherwise resolve conflicts, and build shared values and desires into actions (or at least, into interesting conversations).

There is an important distinction to be made here. One can occasionally (and I often did this) sit in the “chair” and facilitate the smooth running of an organisation. But there is a difference between being the president of an organisation, and being the guy who happens to be sitting in the president’s chair. The position is one of great influence, but not everyone uses it to influence. Others use it to influence, sometimes beyond what is appropriate for their station. A true leader does things which have impact, and great leaders are the ones who are able to have a lasting impact.

As I grew and developed as a person, I realised that I could have a meaningful impact without being the guy in the chair. There was a period of time after my initial forays into the world of leadership where I voluntarily took on more minor roles, and sat in committees and exercised influence from the sidelines. Being as I am, a natural introvert, this was much better-suited to my personality. Even in very small roles, small actions, like designing the architecture of a website well for example, can have a huge influence on the way things work (or don’t) in the future.

Leadership is also about values, and judging things – people, decisions, plans, according to those values. Motivating people to work towards those values. We have very short lives to live on this earth, and I can’t think of anything worse than doing something for a long time which I don’t believe in. What troubles me about the world today is that, even in very wealthy countries, people live and work as if they are only motivated by survival. Most people go to work primarily so that they get paid, and with that pay, they pay rent, and eat, and (hopefully) spend it on things which make them happy like holidays and triathlons. It is for this reason that companies which don’t contribute anything to humanity (and occasionally do a great deal of harm) can continue to operate.

Thousands of years ago, almost all humans had to do jobs which they were not necessarily good at or enjoyed, such as farming, and taking care of domesticated animals, because that was the only way that humanity was able to get enough to eat. However, nowadays, we live in a highly specialised and very advanced economy, where we produce many times what we need in terms of sustenance. Why do we still work like we did thousands of years ago? Habit? I bring this up because I believe that a large part of the blame falls on a severe lack of leadership, and not just at the top levels of government, but all the way down to the personal level of the individual.

We speak a lot about the power of consumers. A consumer chooses dolphin-safe tuna and causes global fishing practices to change, or a consumer chooses clothes manufactured in factories with better working conditions. This is all very well, but firstly, not all consumers do this – most consumers still choose products because they’re the cheapest. We should also think of ourselves as producers. We choose who we work for, and where our productivity goes in the same way (although admittedly, not as frequently) as we choose where the fruits of that productivity gets spent. A graduate mathematician for example could choose to work for a company that makes encryption software for whistleblowers, instead of for the NSA. Each one of these decisions may not seem significant, but in the final calculation, they all add up.

Leadership is about having balls. This doesn’t exclude women, since I’m speaking figuratively and not literally – I know many women who have more balls than most of the men I know. But it starts with thinking more of ourselves, and being better leaders on a personal level. It means taking risks for things that are important to you. It means throwing out economic rationalism on pretty much every level of society, because as mathematically-elegant as it is, it reduces us to machines whose only basic needs and desires are the ones which we can put a price on. Economic rationalism, in other words, denies us our humanity, and it is sad indeed that it has become such an ingrained part of our culture. To change this, we need leadership, and we can’t rely on it to come from the top (have you met the Australian Prime Minister?), so we must take the lead in our own lives.

This means being pro-active and not reactive. It means being able to focus on the world we want to live in and see all the choices we make in the light of that focus. Some of us will make more progress than others, but since we are all interconnected, if we can all at least align ourselves in a similar direction, then humanity can move towards a society which is more humane, and not the one dictated by economic rationalism which will ultimately consume the planet, and along with it our souls. There will be sacrifices, and maybe some of us won’t get to sit in that captain’s chair again, but that’s ok, because if we don’t do this then maybe there won’t be any chairs left to sit on soon.

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