Captain James T. Kirk is one of the most famous Captains in the history of Starfleet. He saved the planet Earth several times, stopped the Doomsday Machine, helped negotiate peace with the Klingon Empire, kept the balance of power between the Federation and the Romulan Empire, and even managed to fight Nazis. On his five-year mission commanding the U.S.S. Enterprise, as well as subsequent commands, James T. Kirk led his crew into the unknown and continued to succeed time after time. Here are five of the key lessons that we can learn from Captain Kirk.
1. Never Stop Learning
“You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown – only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”
In the episode “Arena”, Kirk is forced to fight a Gorn Captain in single combat by advanced beings. Using his own knowledge and materials at hand, Kirk is able to build a rudimentary shotgun, which he uses to defeat the Gorn.
Never stop learning. The more knowledge you have, the more creative you can be. The more you’re able to do, the more solutions you have for your problems. Knowledge is your best key to overcoming whatever obstacles are in your way.
2. Have Advisors with Different Worldviews
“One of the advantages of being a captain, Doctor, is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it.”
Kirk’s closest two advisors are Commander Spock, a Vulcan committed to a philosophy of logic, and Dr. Leonard McCoy, a human driven by compassion and scientific curiosity. Both Spock and McCoy are frequently at odds with each other, recommended different courses of action and bringing very different types of arguments to bear in defense of those points of view. Kirk sometimes goes with one, or the other, or sometimes takes their advice as a springboard to developing an entirely different course of action.
Differences of opinion are better at developing innovation, solving problems, and avoiding groupthink. We all need a McCoy and a Spock in our lives.
3. Be Part of the Away Team
“Risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”
Whenever a challenging mission came up, Kirk was always willing to put himself in harm’s way by joining the Away Team. With his boots on the ground, he was always able to make quick assessments of the situation, leading to superior results. Kirk was very much a hands-on leader, leading the vanguard of his crew as they explored interesting and dangerous situations.
As a leader, it’s sometimes easy to let yourself get away from leading Away Team missions. You get the nice office on the top floor. You have an assistant to help you with day to day activities, and your days are filled with meetings and decisions to be made. Although many of these are absolutely necessary, it’s sometimes easy to trap yourself in the office and forget what life is like on the front lines. When you lose that perspective, it’s much harder to understand what your team is doing, and the best way to get out of the problem. What’s more, when you’re not involved with your team, it’s easy to lose their trust.
4. Play Poker, Not Chess
“Not chess, Mr. Spock. Poker. Do you know the game?”
In one episode, Kirk and his crew face down an unknown vessel from a group calling themselves the “First Federation”. Threats from the vessel escalate until it seems that the destruction of the Enterprise is imminent. Kirk asks Spock for options, who replies that the Enterprise has been playing a game of chess, and now there are no winning moves left. Kirk counters that they shouldn’t play chess – they should play poker. He then bluffs the First Federation by telling them that the Enterprise has a substance in its hull called “corbomite” which will reflect the energy of any weapon back against the attacker. This begins a series of actions that enables the Enterprise crew to establish peaceful relations with the First Federation.
Poker is a far better analogy to strategy than chess. Life is a game of probabilities, not defined rules. And understanding your opponents is often a much greater advantage than the cards you have in your hand. Bluffs, tells, and bets are all a big part of real-life strategy. Playing that strategy with an eye to the psychology of our competitors, not just the rules and circumstances of the game can often lead to better outcomes than following the rigid lines of chess.
5. Blow up the Enterprise
“All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. You could feel the wind at your back in those days. The sounds of the sea beneath you, and even if you take away the wind and the water it’s still the same. The ship is yours. You can feel her. And the stars are still there.”
One recurring theme in the series is that Kirk’s first love is the Enterprise. It’s hinted that his love for the ship kept him from forming any real relationships or starting a family. Despite that love, though, there came a point in “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock”, where Captain Kirk made a decision that pained him enormously – in order to defeat the Klingons and save his crew, he destroyed the Enterprise. The film ends with the crew returning to Vulcan on a stolen Klingon vessel, rather than the Enterprise. But they returned victorious.
We are often driven by a passion. It might be a product, a service or a way of doing things. But no matter how much that passion burns within us, the reality is that times change. Different products and services are created. Different ways of doing things are developed. And there will come times in your life when that passion isn’t viable anymore. A time when it no longer makes sense to pursue your passion. When that happens, no matter how painful it is, you need to blow up the Enterprise. That is, change what isn’t working and embark on a new path, even if that means having to live in a Klingon ship for awhile.