THE EIGHT THINGS CAPTAIN KIRK WOULD HAVE DONE ABOUT COVID
Amidst the ongoing and endless debate about what to do about COVID, I’ve found myself asking: what would Captain Kirk have done if COVID had struck the starship Enterprise?
The Enterprise’s mission was to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Captain Kirk was the commander of the starship, so it was his job to accomplish that mission. When I watched Star Trek as a kid I remember thinking how he always seemed to be teetering on the edge of disaster. Of course he was, I realize now, that mission was dangerous as hell. He’s lucky he didn’t have a complete mutiny on his hands.
Like every military Leader, Kirk was charged with the paradoxical responsibility of mission first, men always
It’s a paradox because it seems like seeking to accomplish the mission will put the men at risk, while protecting the men will make it more difficult to accomplish the mission. It certainly appeared that way to me when I first learned about it as a young soldier. How can a man do both (I asked)? Doing both (I was told) is what Leadership is all about.
You can learn a lot about mission first, men always from watching those old Star Trek episodes. Captain Kirk did a pretty good job discharging that responsibility. Of course, he had some help in what in F3 we call a Shared Leadership Team (SLT).
The Enterprise’s SLT consisted of Spock (the science officer), Bones (the ship surgeon) and Scotty (the ship’s engineer). Because they were not in command like Captain Kirk, none of these men where charged with the responsibility of mission first, men always. Instead, they each had specified responsibilities attendant to their assignment. Spock was primarily concerned with what could be discovered in the strange new worlds they visited; Bones was primarily concerned with the health and welfare of the crew; and Scotty was primarily concerned with the maintenance and continued functionality of the Enterprise itself.
As a result, for Spock it was the mission that mattered most, for Bones it was the men who were the priority and for Scotty it was neither—he just had to see the ship brought back in one piece to discharge his specific duties. Although these men gave Captain Kirk good advice, it was always biased toward their own priority, something Kirk had to adjust for when he convened the SLT.
If Scotty thought Kirk was pushing the ship too hard he would say “Captain, I’m giving her all she’s got!” Regardless of the mission, it made no sense to Scotty as the ship’s engineer to push the Enterprise to the brink of destruction. That was not his job.
When Bones thought Kirk was asking too much of the men in the name of the mission he would say “I’m a doctor Jim”, because he was not capable of balancing the risk to the crew against the benefit of mission accomplishment. That was not his job.
Spock, not being fully human, was incapable of calculating the impact that human emotion would have on behavior. He would often say “that’s illogical” when confronted with a dilemma that could not be resolved through scientific reasoning. That was not his job.
Resolving the Leadership Paradox
It was Captain Kirk’s job to reconcile the conflicting priorities of his SLT and recognize the inherent biases in the counsel that they provided him because he alone was responsible for the accomplishment of the mission above all things and providing for the welfare of the men. It’s a Leadership Paradox and it’s the same Leadership Paradox that every man faces when he agrees to be a Leader.
And it’s the same Leadership Paradox that confronts the Governance today in the era of COVID. The mission of the Governance is to protect the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its citizens and it is the job of the Executive branch of the Governance to accomplish that mission (above all else) while providing for the welfare of the citizenry.
Just as with the Enterprise’s mission, COVID presents an inherent dilemma for the Executive. How can he protect the lives of the citizens and safeguard their liberty? If he locks them down to prevent the virus’ spread, he impinges upon their freedom. If he prioritizes their freedom, he risks the spread of the virus to the vulnerable who may not survive it.
I’m not sure what I would do if faced with this dilemma as a Leader, but there are eight things I think Captain Kirk would have done about COVID
1. He would have recognized and accepted the Leadership Dilemma. Some Executives have acknowledged the inherent conflict presented by COVID’s threat to both life and liberty and accepted the fact that as the Leader, it is their responsibility alone to resolve it—but most have not. Kirk would have recognized and accepted that mission first, men always applies to threat of COVID in same way it does to a Klingon attack.
2. He would have set politics aside. While it is true that the Executive assumes his position though popular election, he cannot Lead through popular opinion. The right decision is the right decision regardless of how many people agree with it. Lincoln almost lost the election of 1864 because the unpopular, although right, decisions that he made. To balance men and mission a Leader often must run against the popular will. Captain Kirk would have done that.
3. He would have told the hard truth. The ever-present temptation to avoid the hard truth by telling the people an easy lie increases as the emotions increase. COVID is an emotional issue. Many Executives have succumbed to this temptation under the good faith belief that people can’t handle the truth. Kirk would have seen that as the folly that it is. The noble lie will do more damage in the long run than the hard truth will do in the short run when the people discover the truth—and they always do.
4. He would not have delegated his duty to Lead. Many Executives have said that they will “follow the science” or “let the doctors decide” rather than accept the fact that as the Leader that duty cannot be delegated. Just as Bones was one voice in Kirk’s SLT, Dr. Fauci should be one voice in the President’s ear. And just as Kirk recognized the inherent bias in Bones’ advice, the Executives must realize that their medical advisors have a priority toward life that does not take liberty into consideration, and shouldn’t. Like Bones, they are doctors, not Leaders.
5. He would have made a decision and stuck to it. In an environment of imperfect information it is usually the man acts most decisively who succeeds. A Leader should not be intransigent, but neither can he blow like the wind because that will cause confusion amongst the followers and erode their confidence in his Leadership. Many, too many, Executives have acted like weather vanes, changing their minds and positions as the wind of popular opinion has shifted. Kirk would have made his decision and stuck to it.
6. He would have led by example. Many Executives have been caught in the act of violating their own restrictions by getting a haircut, eating at indoor restaurants or not wearing a mask. When outed, they usually respond with the same kind of self-justification for their behavior that a citizen would offer for breaking the rule. The issue is not hypocrisy, but Leadership. A Leader cannot expect a man to follow what he says to do unless he himself is willing to do it. When the Enterprise sent a landing party to the surface of a dangerous planet, it was always led by Captain Kirk himself. He wouldn’t put his crew in harm’s way and exempt himself from the danger.
7. He would have been an Andist. A Leader cannot be an Orist who demands that you agree with him or (if you don’t) castigates you as a bad person. Many Executives, perhaps out of frustration, have characterized members of their citizenry who prioritize liberty over life as selfish or uncaring. An Andist would recognize that people have different risk tolerances and accept that a man could prioritize liberty (or life as the case may be) AND yet still be a good citizen. When Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death” I doubt anyone at the Second Virginia Convention jumped up and called him a hater. They could disagree with his priorities AND still believe him to be a good citizen. This, I believe, would have been Captain Kirk’s position as well.
8. He would have accepted responsibility for the outcome. Throughout the pandemic many Executives have sought to pass the blame for the failures of their policies onto others—even blaming their own citizens. Captain Kirk would never have done that. He would have understood what all Virtuous Leaders have known since the first caveman led his tribe to the high ground: the Leader is responsible for everything that happens and fails to happen. While there may be factors outside of his control, the buck stops with him.
While COVID-19 may be a "novel" Coronavirus, there is nothing novel about the Leadership Dilemma it poses. Leaders have always been required to resolve the inherent conflict between mission and men. It is only now that our Executives seem uniquely unqualified to do it. So while it may seem silly to look to a science fiction character for Leadership tips, they might just be well-served by asking themselves what would Captain Kirk do about this?
It can't be worse than what they are doing now.