I was thinking about my leadership style the other day and wondering who my role models were. Obviously, there are the ones who exist in real life. On top of them, however, are those who lurk in the recesses of my brain; filled as it is with pop culture references.
I listed all the qualities that I think are important and that I would want to exhibit as a leader, then I tried to think of how these might have been drip-fed into my brain by my regular diet of science fiction. It’s not an exhaustive list and I’d love to hear more suggestions from people about leadership qualities themselves or places around the universe in which they are demonstrated.
Be fully committed
Leto Atreides II (Children of Dune)
You can’t expect to make great things happen unless you’re prepared to throw yourself into them wholeheartedly. Whether it’s saving the human race from stagnation and decline or just organising Sports Day, you have to be willing to go all the way. That’s certainly what Leto Atreides II did by entering a symbiosis with the sandtrout of Arrakis. He effectively gave up his human body and condemned himself to thousands of years of loneliness in order to see humanity along his Golden Path. Sometimes you have to take one for the team.
Don’t be afraid to change your mind if you get some decent advice
William Adama (Battlestar Galactica)
Early on in Ronald D Moore’s epic saga of humanity on the run from extinction, Commander Adama is keen to arm his powerful vessel and get stuck into the Cylon threat. He has pretty much no chance of making any impact whatsoever but it is the only course of action that seems open to him. The idea of cutting bait and running away is so alien to him that he doesn’t entertain the idea at first. Newly sworn-in President Laura Roslin tells him that, if humanity is even to survive as a species, they need to get as far away as they can and start having babies. Adama dismisses this at first but, after some thought, he realises the value of this advice. This is something we could all learn from. Sometimes, we are so set on the course that we are on that we refuse to take advice, even from reliable sources. We should always take some time to reflect on advice and not dismiss it out of hand.
Make recruitment a priority
Emperor Palpatine (Star Wars)
Finding the right people for positions in your organisation is vital if you are going to be successful. The right appointment can mean the difference between meeting your goals and falling short. Palpatine demonstrates a singular determination and real long-term succession planning in his recruitment strategy. He aggressively pursues a powerful young Jedi (Annakin Skywalker) who can drive his plans forward. While he plays the long game, he also has a reliable veteran (Count Dooku) filling the space as a kind of interim caretaker. Palpatine’s long term plan also takes into account his new protégé’s accident at work and immediately factors in a potential replacement. You have to plan for sudden changes to your workforce and find the right people to join you.
Make the tough decisions
Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica), Saul Tigh (Battlestar Galactica)
In the words of the late, great Randy Pausch, “If you have to eat a frog, don’t spend a long time looking at it first.” Sometimes a decision has to be made. It might not be popular but you have to act on your best judgement. Laura Roslin is faced with the fact that the Cylons will arrive in the midst of her fleet at any minute. She faces the dilemma of leaving people behind and saving the majority, or risking everyone by staying to try to evacuate people onto faster ships so that they can all escape. She thinks, takes in the facts and makes the only decision possible; she goes with what she has. On board Galactica, a fire rages below decks and Colonel Tigh has to take up the mantle of responsibility as Executive Officer. The fire will spread and destroy the ship unless the bulkheads are sealed and the air vented into space. Unfortunately, that solution involves venting all the people who are trying to put out the fire into space too. Tigh steps up and makes the call, saving thousands. He’s over the alcohol limit, probably, while doing it, but its still the right call. You have to make decisions sometimes, even if they’re not going to be popular.
Put the right people in the right positions
James T Kirk (Star Trek)
Kirk really was a great leader. The best thing was the way he had assembled the best team around him. He wasn’t the smartest person on the ship; he wasn’t the best engineer or the best scientist. He gathered a team around him that would be able to give him the best advice and then he decided what advice to take and what to ignore. When he took over command of the Enterprise once more in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, he insisted on having that same team around him again so that he could be assured of success.
See the humour in every situation
Kerr Avon (Blake’s 7)
Sometimes we deal with very serious things as leaders. It is important, even in the face of tragedy to maintain one’s sense of humour. I was on some training recently that backed this up. The trainer told a story of a man whose wife of many years had recently died. He said that at least now he could choose what to watch on TV. Sometimes humour is the only way in which we can process things. Avon was a man who could always do that. When their plans failed and the situation was grim, a colleague said to him, “I told you I couldn’t do it!” His response? “I believed you all along.”
Put policy into practice
Ellen Ripley (Alien)
When you have created rules for a good reason, it’s vitally important that you stick to them as a leader, even if that makes you unpopular with colleagues. Let’s face it; if Ripley had her way, that Alien would never have made it on board the Nostromo. There were clear rules about quarantine and she did exactly the right thing in following them, not admitting John Hurt and his facehugger friend. More people died than would have done otherwise because her decision as the ranking officer was overruled by Ash. Agendas, eh?
Look after your team
Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly)
The most important thing to Capt. Reynolds is his crew; they’re like his family. Even the ones he doesn’t agree with are equally entitled to his protection in times of trouble. When Simon Tam questions why Reynolds didn’t leave him and his unstable stowaway sister behind on a planet, he answers simply, “You’re on my crew.” It’s as if no other explanation should be necessary. The people who look to you as a leader always need to know that you will protect their interests.
Be a good communicator
Klaatu (The Day the Earth Stood Still)
When it comes time to stand up in that meeting and really put your point across, you have to be able to do so clearly. You have to be sensitive to your listener but also get the message across. I can’t think of anyone more skilled at this than Klaatu. Not only does he conceive a plan to get the message to the entire human race in a way that will be undeniable but without harm, but he also makes a speech devoid of embellishments and flair to a group of the most intelligent people on the planet. He delivers the message in plain language with no ambiguity. That quality is something that is vitally important in leadership. You have to be able to get your point across well. What Klaatu also does is makes sure he’s talking to the right people. In seeking to learn about the ‘organisation’ that is Earth, he doesn’t speak to the politicians or the generals. He speaks to the real people on the ground floor. That’s how you know what’s really going on.
Don’t submit to negativity
Darth Vader (Star Wars)
You have to keep any team focussed on how things are going to turn out brilliantly if everyone contributes and stays positive. In Return of the Jedi, Lord Vader has absolute faith that work on the Death Star will be completed on schedule. He won’t hear of anything else. In Star Wars, he gets harangued in a meeting about his religion and how it’s not helping the Empire. Vader won’t let negativity into meetings and takes immediate action to restore positivity and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Hold people to account
Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back), Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly), William Adama and Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica)
There are probably lots more examples I could call up that demonstrate this requirement of good leadership. Everyone in your organisation has targets for their own performance for a good reason: to contribute to the overall effectiveness of the team. Lord Vader is a great example of holding people to account. Admiral Ozzel has plenty of warnings about his performance but Vader can only be expected to tolerate so much failure. In Battlestar Galactica’s fourth season, Adama and Roslin suffer a mutiny at the hands of people they trust. The actions of these traitors put the entire fleet in jeopardy and they rightly have to face the music. Too much has been forgiven in the past and a line has to be drawn. As for Captain Reynolds, he gives possibly my favourite example. He sees an attempt by his crew member, Jayne Cobb, to turn in the fugitives Simon and River Tam as a betrayal and an act against him personally. It is the fact that he is so let down by this that comes across most clearly in what he says to Jayne. Reynolds’ quality which I most admire is to grant another chance to that person. He gives Jayne a chance to make amends and prove his worth to the team.
Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself occasionally
Commander Shepherd (Mass Effect Trilogy)
As a leader, you’re still a human being. If you try to pretend that you’re perfect, it comes across as dishonesty. We all make mistakes; we all have bad days. You have to find ways to demonstrate to your team that you are one of them; that you are fallible. Shepherd does this every time he steps on a dance floor.
So, these are some things that I think are important in leadership, and some ways in which I’ve seen them done in my many unproductive hours in front of a screen. I don’t claim to have all these qualities and I don’t endorse force-choking someone or putting them out of an airlock for making a mistake, just so we’re clear. Please let me know in the comments if you have any other examples that you think are good leadership from space.
Thanks for reading,
You can check out some of my other lists by clicking the links below…