How To Captain a Starship Creating a Better Future: Life-Changing Lessons in Leadership

The most horrific and nightmarish of times can often bring about at least one good thing: the birth of a great leader.

Whether it be Winston Churchill standing up to Hitler’s murderous regime or Gandhi ushering in a message of non-violence amidst political chaos or even George Washington leading American underdogs through a bloody revolution, leaders seem to shine brightest in the darkest of places.

Some of my favorite leaders come from the future, in the wonderful worlds of Science Fiction.

I believe it is the environment of Space, filled with limitless dangers and unpredictabilities, that provides the perfect platform for these men and women to excel as leaders.

These are the life-changing lessons I’ve personally learned from some of my favorite Sci-Fi captains

Encourage Breaks

Star Trek: Voyager is a wonderful show that begins with Captain Kathryn Janeway and her crew stranded in the Delta Quadrant, 70,000 lightyears from Earth, in uncharted territory. Janeway has to lead her crew on a slow and unpredictable journey back home (projected to take only the tiny amount of, oh, about 75 years…) 😳

Captain Janeway fan art I made

It always seems striking to me that in spite of being helpless and in the most foreboding of circumstances, Captain Janeway still stops at various planetsencouraging her team to explore new worlds.

Though this is basically the mantra of Star Trek itself (Anyone else hearingShatner’s voice right now? …“to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”) it adds a particularly powerful punch when emergency circumstances are added to the equation as well…

Captain Kirk fan art I made

Captain Janeway and her crew are stranded in dangerous and uncharted territory, every second precious to them in getting home, and what do they do?

Do they really stop and “sightsee” when they should have been in absolute and complete disaster mode?! Is that even feasible? I know if it was me, my instinct would probably be to crawl into the holodeck, maybe find a nice corner of Vic Fontaine’s lounge or something, and just cry and cry and cry…probably for the whole 75 years…

But that’s why I didn’t captain Voyager. And Janeway did

Sometimes the planets that they stopped at housed resources that helped Voyager take that long journey back, yes, and oftentimes those planets also came with hostilityconflict, and near-death escapes…

So, again…why would Janeway encourage all this?

I think ultimately she understood the importance of peaking human curiosity and helping others stay stimulated and calm when facing stressful circumstances. Janeway essentially understood the importance of taking breaks.

There is a beautiful power to taking breaks. It helps to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. As Bryant McGill has said,

“Your calm mind is the ultimate weapon against your challenges.”

And I’ve witnessed this firsthand.

The best places I’ve worked have paid me to do stupid things (every once in a while). One time a company I worked at stopped production for the whole day (despite upcoming deadlines) and we had this ridiculous costume competition and runway show. We awarded prizes and came up with backstories and it had absolutely nothing to do with our project. (I think the grand prize winners ended up being some sort of cannibalistic take on Gilligan’s Island and they even had this whole song and dance based on the shows intro — it was hilariously absurd)!!

But I think my boss was actually a secret genius because after that productivity skyrocketed. We were collectively less uptight, a little funnier, and a whole lot closer to one another (with a great load of Facebook photos to prove it)

In the words of Alan Cohen,

“There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.”

Bosses that create a harmonious balance between work and play allow their employees to stay stimulated, curious, and freed… which in turn makes the crew better workers — even (and especially) when times are rough!

Care For Even The Weakest Individual As You Would Yourself

As a kid I remember hearing the biblical story of the shepherd who left his flock of sheep to find the one stray. I couldn’t help but think the Shepherd in the story must have been mentally-ill. Why in the world would he leave? This shepherd guy could come back with one lost sheep only to discover thirty more missing! I mean, if one sheep could easily get lost didn’t that mean the whole group of other sheep could as well…especially when left without a leader to guide them?!

I understand the metaphor better now…Especially since I’ve been listening to the lectures of Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth.

Campbell recounted a true story that occurred in Hawaii:

Two policemen were driving and passing some cliffs in Hawaii. They saw that just beyond the railing a young man was about to jump and commit suicide. The policeman on the right of the car leapt out and grabbed the boy just as he jumped — and he himself was pulled over too. He would have died had the second cop not pulled the two of them back…

Campbell said,

“This is what’s known as one-pointed meditation. Everything else in his life dropped off: his duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life just disappeared and he was about to go…”

Campbell said that the policeman explained his actions in one sentence,

“If I had let that man go I could not have lived another day of my life.”

Campbell then talked about how this story shows a deep metaphysical truth:

We are all connected. We are all one.

When we realize we are a part of a collective, a group, or an ideal, we realize the individual is non-existent. The individual is a part of us.

The Martian Fan Art I made

The Martian is a near-future book/movie (both very well-done) that highlights this idea. In the story, the crew agrees to return back to Mars to retrieve one of their teammates that they have mistakenly left for dead. Even though they barely have the supplies and time to do so, they turn back around to bring him home. They decide they just can’t live with themselves in leaving this member of theirs behind, especially captain Mellisa Lewis

“I left him behind,” Lewis said quietly. The celebrations ceased immediately as the crew saw their commander’s expression. “But,” Beck began, “we all left togeth — ” “You followed orders,” Lewis interrupted. “I left him behind. In a barren unreachable, godforsaken wasteland.” –Chapter 12, The Martian

Good leaders not only take personal responsibility for individuals, they help inspire their followers to this selfless ideal as well.

There’s an interesting part of The Martian (book versionnot the movie) where the character Beth Johanssen talks to her dad back on Earth and let’s him know that even if the rescue mission fails, she will still come home. In a nutshell, Beth would essentially survive by cannibalism, from a willing crew that would sacrifice themselves to keep her aliveRead the excerpt below:

“I won’t die. I really won’t. Even if everything goes wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

Johanssen furrowed her brow. “Just tell Mom I won’t die.”

“How? I don’t understand.”

“I don’t want to get in to the how,” Johanssen said.

“Look,” he said, leaning toward the camera. “I’ve always respected your privacy and independence. I never tried to pry in to your life, never tried to control you. I’ve been really good about that, right?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“So in exchange for a lifetime of staying out of your business, let me nose in just this once. What are you not telling me?”

She fell silent for several seconds. Finally, she said “They have a plan.”


“There’s always have a plan,” she said. “They work out everything in advance.”

“What plan?”

“They picked me to survive. I’m youngest. I have the skills necessary to get home alive. And I’m the smallest and need the least food.”

“What happens if the probe fails, Beth,” her father asked. This time, he was uncharacteristically firm.

“Everyone would die but me,” she said. “They’d all take pills and die. They’ll do it right away so they don’t use up any food. Commander Lewis picked me to be the survivor. She told me about it yesterday. I don’t think NASA knows about it.”

“And the supplies would last until you got back to Earth?”

“No,” she said. “We have enough food left to feed six people for a month. If I was the only one, it would last 6 months. With a reduced diet I could stretch it to 9. But it’ll be 17 months before I get back.”

“So how would you survive?”

“The supplies wouldn’t be the only source of food.” she said.

He widened his eyes. “Oh… oh my god…”

“Just tell Mom the supplies would last, ok?”

Thank GOODNESS the story didn’t have to go in this direction other than this one conversation in Chapter 73 of The Martian…I just don’t think I would be able to live with myself if all those nice people chose to die and had to really did so… *shivers*

Regardless, this situation from The Martian illustrates the same universal point that the Shephard/Sheep, the Policeman/Suicide Jumper, and countless other examples (like parents who are willing to die for their child) do too:

Good leaders know that the individual is the group…

Establish an Environment of Trust

Simon Sinek said something really interesting thing in his last Ted Talk about leadership

After detailing a story about a selfless man named Captain William Swenson who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for running into a raging fire, risking his life, and rescuing wounded soldiers, Sinek then asked the audience,

“Where do people like that come from?”

He determined it is not that the military simply attracts better people, it is that these people simply had a better environment to thrive in.

“In the military they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.”

When interviewing countless heroes, Sinek said they all said the same thing too:

“they would have done it for me”

Great leaders establish an environment of deep trust and cooperation for their entire crew. Sinek highlighted this by saying,

“The only variable are the conditions inside the organization. That’s where leadership matters, because it’s the leader who sets the toneWhen leadersmake a choice to put the people first, remarkable things happen.”

Businesses and Starships are microcosms for the world. If we don’t feel safe in one, we probably ain’t down for a very long ride in the end.

Firefly Fan Art I made

Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the starship Serenity in the cancelled-far-too-soon television show Firefly (ahhh the theme music from the show is starting to play in my head now), embodies this completely, safeguarding his crew at all and every cost.

Like a tiger protecting its young, Malcolm Reynolds, or Mal, houses a fierce loyalty to his crew, lashing out at anyone or anything that threatens any of them in any way, even when that threat comes internally.

In a particularly powerful scene, Mal holds one of his own crew members, Jayne, out of a deadly airlock, forcing him to confess the truth: Jayne betrayed and sold out Simon and River (two of the newer crew members). Mal tells Jayne that betraying Simon and River is exactly the same as if Jayne betrayed Mal himself.

Ultimately Mal (in another great moment of leadership) uses this moment to inspire change within Jayne. He does not kill Jayne, but instead allows the deep guilt and shame to cause a change within Jayne. The scene ends delicately with Jayne begging the captain not to tell the other crew members what he did. Mal senses Jayne’s remorse and re-establishes the safe equilibrium he has worked tirelessly to create on Serenity. The episode ends with the crew laughing and eating together (no one the wiser about Jayne’s betrayal).

Truly remarkable things happen when people are put first. People by nature are flawed, but forgiveness and trust from leaders can raise them to a higher standard.

Mending mistakes, and establishing an environment of trust go hand in hand.

In the words of Auliq Ice,

“Not only do our trials become classrooms that teach us life’s most profound lessons, they add joy and meaning to daily living.”

The best leaders understand this and help individuals to rise once they fall. They set the tone. They understand the capacity for change when forgiveness is present.

When we forgive others it’s almost as if we forgive ourselves…

Actor Nathan Fillion made a really insightful comment about his character, Mal, and the relationship he has to every member aboard his ship:

“Everybody represents a facet of himself that he has lost and that’s why he keeps them close and safe, and yet at arm’s length”

Prioritize Responsibility for Personal Feelings

In the story Ender’s Game, Ender becomes the leader of the Dragon “toon” as part of his training against a feared alien invasion.

Enders Game fan art I made

It breaks my heart a little but there’s a sad little scene in the book where Ender’s companions are hanging out together after a day of training and Ender makes a conscious decision to retreat to his room. Alone.

He does this, not because he doesn’t want to spend time with them (it’s quite the contrary actually), but because he has observed that the best leaders allow their platoon some space.

Leaders who try to be the popular guy, or get too buddy-buddy with their team, potentially suffocate a healthy working environment…

Any Office fans out there? Someone like Michael Scott is coming to mind…

Douglas McArthur once said,

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone”

Sometimes standing alone means both standing up for what you believe in no matter what and also standing away from your crew so that they can just have a little breathing space.

If You Lose, Don’t Lose Your Laughter

Captain Sisko Fan Art I made

By far, one of my favorite episodes inStar Trek: Deep Space Nine is the episode called Take Me Out to the Holosuite, in which Captain Sisko and his crew challenge the Vulcans to a game of baseball.

I like this episode a lot because you really root for the Starfleet crew to win this game (especially since baseball is so close to Captain Sisko’s heart). They are up against the stronger and more stone-faced Vulcans, who by nature are extremely calculating and efficient…

The Starfleet team does not win the game. To tell the truth, they don’t even come close!

There are a few moments where the team gets pretty down about not scoring against the near-perfect Vulcans, especially Captain Sisko, who challenged the Vulcans to this game in the first place. But by the end, a complete change of heart occurs as they celebrate one of their teammates who accidentally achieves a perfect bunt (causing them to score a grand total of one point)

But that one point means more to Sisko and his team than all of the Vulcan’s points combined. That one point means togetherness, even if for just a moment.

After this accidental euphoric moment, the team has a complete change of heart. They go about the rest of the day exuberantly cheering and laughing wildly, celebrating well into the night as the Vulcans bitterly claim that Sisko and his team merely “manufacture triumph where none exists”

But as Laura Ingalls Wilder once said,

“A good laugh overcomes more difficulties and dissipates more dark clouds than any other one thing.”

I think good leaders laugh. I think this allows any dark clouds to dissipate and appear less heavy for a team.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, once said,

Nonsense wakes up the brain cells. And it helps develop a sense of humor, which is awfully important in this day and age. Humor has a tremendous place in this sordid world. It’s more than just a matter of laughing. If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.”

Use the Darkness to Shine

In his famous poem, Walt Whitman said,

“O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring”

This poem was written about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. There are some beautifully grim phrases that really stand out to me: “The vessel grim and daring” “our fearful trip” and “the ship has weathered every rack”

There is a triumph to this poem as well. The vessel has survived the worst. And we can too.

Though the future can seem confusing and full of darkness, we know that individuals have the ability to shine in spite of this. We only have to look at examples in leadership to know that we too can rise up and help weather any storm.

How can we captain this starship called life? In taking breaks every now and again, in caring for others, in creating an environment of trust, and in our daily love and laughter…

The future’s still out there — and it’s ours to determine!

So in the words of Simon Sinek (from his awesome book Leaders Eat Last),

“Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.”

I know my favorite Sci-Fi leaders have taught me some pretty amazing things!

Have any other leaders taught you some life-changing lessons? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

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