Feb. 7, 2023

072: TNG: The Bonding

Leaders are rarely alone.

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Next Generation, The Bonding (Season 3, Episode 5). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Picard and Counselor Troi.


A child on the Enterprises loses his mother and he is all alone. Captain Picard not only has to tell him of his loss, but also has to solve an alien mystery. In this, he demonstrates that a leader rarely needs to make decisions, or enter into situations, on their own.


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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Leadership can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. We often have support that we aren’t taking advantage of or that we’re not even aware is there. I’m going to talk about how to unlock the value of never trying to lead by yourself and I’m going to pick up on a critically important theme I started into in the last episode of the podcast. And I’m going to do that as we watch the 5th episode of the third season of The Next Generation, The Bonding.




The Enterprise is orbiting a planet where the civilization destroyed itself. Worf is leading an archeological dig to learn what happened. “This planet was originally home to a race known as the Koinonians.” 0:23 It all seems to be going well until, out of nowhere, a device explodes, killing the archeologist, Lt. Aster. And if that weren’t bad enough, “Lt. Aster is survived by her son, Jeremy, 12 years old.” 4:16 His dad passed away 5 years ago, so Jeremy is now an orphan, on the Enterprise. Picard and Counselor Troi go to tell him what has happened.


On the bridge, Wesley Crusher, who’s Dad died on a mission Picard led, years ago, feels the pain of this moment. “He had to do the same for me.” 5:33 He doesn’t know Jeremy but empathizes with what he’s about to go through.


On the way to talk with Jeremy, Picard talks with Troi. He questions if having families aboard the Enterprise is such a good idea. She hears him out and offers encouragement for him as they go to deliver the news. Jeremy is shocked by the news but receives it stoically. “I’m all alone now sir.” 9:12


Data visits Riker to ask about how people process death, and the questions people ask about it. “Why do you ask the question? Since her death, people have been asking me how well I know her.” 10:12 leading to one of the most profound statements ever spoken, “Maybe if we felt loss as keenly as those close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody.” 11:06


Geordi LaForge takes a team to the planet to investigate the explosion. It looks like weapons left over from the war where the Koinonians destroyed themselves.


Worf is struggling. He is angry that someone under his command died so senselessly. He talks to Troi about it, who is awesome, “Go on.” 12:30 He feels a responsibility to Jeremy. He tells Troi he wants to perform a Klingon ritual, R’uustai, with Jeremy. It is The Bonding. Troi strongly discourages him from doing this. Says Jeremy still needs to process his loss and that this ritual will do more harm than good.


Jeremy spends time, weirdly alone, like they just leave him in his quarters by himself. Weird. But he’s spending time watching family videos. Worf drops in, luckily not to perform the ritual, but to talk to him, to try and take some responsibility. But, wow, he really blows it, “Did they also teach you Klingons seek to die with honor, like your mother did?” 15:55 Wow, man…way too soon. He makes it all about him and his traditions and it goes about as well as you’d expect.


On the bridge, they pick up some weird energy readings. Around the same time, “Jeremy? Mom!!” 21:47 All of the sudden, she’s back! Lt. Aster is back and hanging out with Jeremy. “Captain, there’s a presence on the Enterprise.” 22:18 Jeremy is weirded out, and has questions, but this version of his Mom is trying to convince him that it was all a misunderstanding and that they’re going to move, down to the planet’s surface, and live there now. Being 12-years old and having his Mom back, he's all for this. Searching for the unknown presence, Worf finds her, but she takes Jeremy to a transporter room.


Picard and Troi intercept them and try to talk them down, but it doesn’t go well. Geordi, the Engineer, is able to temporarily disrupt the weird energy signal, and she disappears. Troi takes Jeremy back to his quarters and now they look like his home on Earth. He is getting very confused. Fake Mom is back and continues making the case. She just wants to protect Jeremy and make him happy.


While the koinonians destroyed themselves, there was another race on the planet, a race made from energy. They have survived, and “the surviving life forms will not tolerate any more suffering.” 36:03 So Picard does what Picard does, and explains that their solution, taking Jeremy to live in a false world with a fake mom, will cause suffering. “It is at the heart of our nature to feel pain and joy.” 37:00 But, as we’ll talk about in the command codes, he doesn’t do this alone. Wesley Crusher joins them and shares his experience when he lost his father. It was very powerful. Jeremy cries, feeling the loss, being angry, like he should. The energy being understands and returns everything to normal, going back to the planet.


With Troi’s support, Worf and Jeremy perform the R’uustai, The Bonding. “We will be brothers.” 42:17


<<Red Alert>>


When this episode came up last week, I said it was a Worf and Troi episode. Boy, was I wrong! This is absolutely a Counselor Troi episode and it’s a really good one for her! But for Jeremy Aster. Wow! This little dude is going to need a lot of ongoing help and care!


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This episode was, honestly, better than it deserved to be. It was a little confused, I think, with what it wanted to be. Is this a story about a mysterious, alien culture that is still trying to right wrongs from generations ago? Is it an episode about human nature and how we cope with grief? Is it about responsibility and the challenges of being in a leadership role?


In the end, I think it’s a little of all of those things, and, honestly, maybe the right amount of each of them to make this an enjoyable episode. I, very honestly, wasn’t too excited about it when it popped up but on my first watch through I was pleasantly surprised.


The downside to this one is the actor that played Jeremy Aster. He just wasn’t good enough for what the role called for. He wasn’t terrible and he didn’t ruin the show, but was just kind of a dry pancake in scenes that called for a fluffy, Belgian waffle. Luckily, he was surrounded by people really bringing some great performances, most notably, Wil Wheaton! “Do you ever think about him, Mom?” 20:09 He carried a heavy, heavy storyline through this, and brought in the big swings for the climax and he was awesome!


This episode aired in late ’89 which might be one of its big drawbacks as well. Like, he and Worf are brothers now, but we don’t even hear this kid’s name again. Not even a mention! The idea of carry-over storylines was unheard of at this time and that’s really too bad. Like, frankly, they could have dropped the whole R’uustai storyline and the only change to the story would be that it was like 3 minutes shorter. If he ever got a mention again, or even showed up in an episode, then it would have been important. Instead, it’s just another footnote on Klingon culture that we keep in our back pocket for maybe someday.


But, aside from the powerful leadership stuff that we’re going to get to here shortly, this episode did a great examination of how we, as humans deal and cope with loss. This is especially poignant for me, and I watched this episode a little differently, because I lost my dad back in March. In the last two years I’ve lost both of my parents and I really identified with a lot of what happened in this episode.


At a macro level, the show uses Data’s character really well. He’s such a great mouthpiece to straight-up ask the big questions. He and Riker are reflecting on Aster’s death, “It’s human nature. We feel a loss more when it’s a friend. Should not the feelings run just as deep?” 10:48 oof, that’s some big stuff! In the 65th episode of the podcast where we watched TNG: The First Duty I shared one of my moments of mini-existential crisis around death, and this conversation really echoes this. People die. Literally all the time. But life goes on, and far too often with little more than even a thought for the loss.


Now, we can’t feel every loss the way we feel it when it’s someone close to us. I mean, we’d just be crying all the time, non-stop. But we can pause and reflect on the value of a life and the other lives it touched. Back in the throes of COVID, on May 24th 2020, the New York Times marked the 100,000th death in the US attributed to COVID by printing the names of 1,000 people that had died. It took the entire front page! I’ll tell you, it’s one thing to hear 100,000 and a VERY different thing to see 1% of that printed out. I encourage you to DuckDuckGo that story because it is wildly impactful. I keep a screenshot of it on my phone to remind myself that people are more than just a number. And the thing is, we have totally eclipsed that now and it feels like little more than an afterthought.


At the time of this recording, according to various news outlets, there are over 54,880 people that have died in the Ukraine-Russian War. Now, that’s a lot of people, but we see stuff like this all the time and are desensitized to it. 50,000 dead here, 123,000 dead there…they’re just numbers. Riker, here, challenges us to reflect on the names, families and friends of these numbers. If we were to do that, especially all the way back to our earliest times, to quote him, the story of humanity would be a lot less bloody.


At a micro level, this episode really gets into it. The thing that really hit for me was the theme of people pretending to be ok when they aren’t ok. Being stoic, not ‘overly emotional,’ being brave. This episode showed how important it is for us to experience our grief and our loss, and not pretend it doesn’t exist. We heard about in in Wesley’s story and we watched it happen with Jeremy Aster. Despite his shortcomings as an actor, when he finally opens up and cries at the end of the episode, you can feel the release. It’s very powerful.


There’s a great scene that addresses this perceived need to be strong through tragedy like this between Picard and Troi. “How’s the boy. Brave. Good. Not good.” 16:49 Now, I’m no counselor, but this really feels like an excellent example of toxic, ‘strong’ leadership and how it doesn’t line up with reality. She straight called him on this and it was great! In fact, this entire episode was great for Troi.


I think this episode’s big win is that we saw therapy in action and saw that it’s real. For people that haven’t experienced therapy, there’s the stigma that it’s all touchy-feely and a waste of time. This episode, in 1989, showed that it not only helps us to feel and move through our emotions, but also helps us make better decisions and be more effective in whatever it is we’re trying to do.


I did not expect to feel this way when I first started this episode, but I highly recommend taking the time to watch through this one.


<<Command Codes>>


As a leader, have you ever felt alone? I can tell you, from experience, that is a terrible, terrible feeling. I’m going to call out the amazing theme in this episode, though, that demonstrates we rarely are truly alone, we just don’t always know where to look. I’m also going to talk about one of the hardest parts of our jobs, delivering bad news, and, first, I’m going to pick up on a theme I started in the last episode. One of the big secrets to effective leadership. Don’t take it personally!


The Starfleet Leadership Academy is supported by listeners, just like you. Click the link in the show notes to support the ongoing production of this podcast.


Why? Why do so many people insist on thinking everything is about them? Maybe I should ask Counselor Troi about that… But, seriously, as leaders, as managers, we often have to make decisions that won’t make everyone happy. Or we have to deliver messages that people aren’t going to like, and, yeah! People get upset when that happens! Have you ever had to deny a PTO or leave request? Have you ever had a request of your denied? I remember working at a silicon wafer factory, for a very short time, and being told my leave request was denied because I didn’t get my bid in soon enough. I was furious! And so are the people you have to do this to.


But, here’s the thing. And I didn’t realize this all those years ago. But it wasn’t my supervisor I was mad at. Like, I sure thought it was, but it doesn’t really matter who was in that job, the rules is the rules! I was actually mad at the policy. So remember this when your team gets mad at you. In almost every case, it’s the policy, or the rule, or the message or the whatever they are mad at…you just happen to be the human in front of them delivering that message.


Now, if you’re a jerk and are just plain mean to people, or you slack off and don’t follow through on things you’ve committed to or that people expect from you, ok, yeah. In those cases they’re probably mad at you. But, as a listener of the Starfleet Leadership Academy, I am positive you aren’t any of these things. …Are you?


In this episode, there is a great scene near the end where Wesley Crusher, who is about 18 years old in this episode, shares his experience when he lost his dad on a Starfleet mission, when he was serving under Picard on the USS Stargazer. Wesley was 5 years old when this happened and Picard came to inform him, just like he did for Jeremy Aster in this episode when his mother died, and Wesley was so mad, he was furious, as anyone would be. Both Wesley and Jeremy lost their parent to accidents; they died senseless deaths and they both died under Picard’s command.


But time often brings wisdom and maturity, and Wesley shares that here. “I was angry at you…but not anymore. Not even a little.” 40:17 He grew to understand that he was mad because his dad died, not because of anything Picard did.


I wanted to share this because, in my experience, so many leaders, so many managers start making their big mistakes, start second-guessing themselves, star feeling more and more stress leading to burnout because they buy in to the anger. They believe that the person is actually mad at them.


I have managed, at various levels, in a number of transactional, production environments; where we could rate an employee’s performance, essentially, based on the number of widgets they pushed out that met standards. In those environments, turnover can be high. There is a set standard and you people either meet it or they don’t. When I was a direct supervisor and had to hand people their final checks and accompany them while they cleaned out their workspaces, this lesson became very apparent to me. I had people cry. They argued. Some yelled at me and a handful even threatened me. Yeah, I had a dude literally say that to me. Luckily, he never showed up back at the office, but, wow!


If I had taken that all personally, I would have given up the management game a very long time ago. But I used it as a, well, as a litmus test. Did I do everything I could to create the environment where they could choose to be successful? Did they know what was expected, did I make them aware of how they were performing? Did I make it clear that they’d be let go if they didn’t hit the standard? If I had done all of those things, then it wasn’t anything personal. I had created the environment for them, provided the information, and they either chose not to do what they needed to or they weren’t capable of it. And, hey! I want to be clear here. Not being capable of spitting out a thousand widgets a week doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you a not good fit for that job! I’ve managed a lot of these shops…I could not be successful actually working in one.


But because I had worked that all out, because I understood they weren’t mad at me but were understandably upset at losing their job, I didn’t take it personally. At all. And that helped me to be more compassionate. I was able to focus on delivering the message in careful and gentle way that acknowledged their value as a human but also made it clear this wasn’t the job for them. Had I been taking it personally, I would have crafted my message in a way…in fact, let’s do this. I imagine you have either fired someone or maybe even been fired, or, if nothing else, you’ve seen it on TV. How often do you see it go down like this?


“I wanted to meet with you and let you know that we really appreciate everything you add to the office here. You’re friendly and everyone appreciates that cool thing you do sometimes. Unfortunately, you’re still not hitting your numbers so we’re letting you go. It’s not that you did anything bad, we just need people spitting out widgets.” Something like that sound familiar? Start with something nice, then drop the bomb, and follow-up something nice again? I’ve heard it called a shit sandwich. A pile of bad plopped between two decent slices of bread.


Well, here’s the thing. The bread; the nice things you say; those are only to make YOU feel better. It does not soften the blow, it does not help them feel better about this. It’s just a mechanism we use to try and make us not feel so bad about what we’re doing. But if you understand this isn’t about you, it isn’t personal, then you don’t need to serve that sandwich. You can carefully and compassionately deliver the message and you can both move forward.


Now, to be clear, just because I didn’t take it personally does not mean this was ever easy to do. No, it was the worst! Even now, talking about those days makes me queasy. Yes, I did all the things I needed to do and they made their choices, but I still had to look another person in the eyes and tell them they weren’t wanted here anymore. That’s not easy to do.


I am grateful that I have never had to be the person that has to do what Picard does, though. I have never had to notify a family that they’ve lost a loved one. I have, though, had to inform my work teams that a member of the team had passed away. It’s different, but still so hard. There was a conversation in this episode that really got me thinking about both of these scenarios – informing people that someone had died and letting someone go. Really, it reminded me of all the types of bad news managers have to deliver. “How do you get used to it? Telling them. You hope you never do.” 5:55


And I will tell you – you never get used to it. You get more skilled at it, you develop better coping mechanisms for it. But you never get used to it. Every time I have to get in front of a person or a group to share something not great I get butterflies in my stomach. And not the cool, I’m 16 and might maybe get to kiss this girl kind of butterflies. More like the I feel like I need to throw-up right now and would honestly rather do that than get in front of these people right now kind of butterflies.


But it is the job. I have often said that one of the key skills managers need, that we rarely actually recruit for, is their ability to tell people no and to disappoint them without negatively impacting the work environment or culture. Back in early 2020 one of my team members died. Doug. He worked at the reception desk for one of the programs I managed but I had known him for over a decade. He was liked and respected by the other 65 or so people that we worked with. His wife called me the night he passed and after I worked through my own initial grief, I began preparing myself to tell the team; I knew I had to do it first thing.


I spent some time that evening and then in the morning thinking about what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. This was especially hard for me because I had known him for so long. I got to the office early and had arranged to meet with my supervisor. He was great, very compassionate and understanding. We talked through my plan to deliver the news. He had some incredible insights and advice that he offered. And then we both went in and pulled everyone together. I delivered the news, I broke down into tears and everyone started immediately supporting each other. It was beautiful. Horrifying and awful, but beautiful. I left the office afterwards, actually went to the mall that has since closed down so I could walk for a little while, and then I came back to work and did the things I needed to do.


On the scale of firing someone to telling a family that one of their loved ones has died, that’s pretty high up. But the same principles apply across that scale. Remember that this isn’t about you – do not take it personally, it won’t be easy and it shouldn’t be easy! And, the next thing I’m going to talk about, don’t do it alone.


When Worf and Troi are talking through Worf’s reaction and feelings on losing a member of his team, he exposes what a lot of people think leaders do and Troi, masterfully corrects him and shares what effective leaders actually do. “A leader must stand alone, like Picard. Picard talks to me.” 12:49


An effective leader never works alone. They seek guidance, counsel, wisdom. Many actually hire a trusted consultant just to talk through scenarios with to get a different perspective and oftentimes advice. And some of the super, super effective ones hire that consultant here, through the Starfleet Leadership Academy…check the show notes for more on that…


In the execution, it might look like that leader is alone. Thinking about government leaders as an example. We often see just the president or the governor behind a podium delivering the message. Back in 2019 I actually served on a task force for our governor. There was a group of about 20 of us and our meetings included so many others: experts in their fields, advisors, policy and economic analysts. We would meet, sometimes for hours on end, but it culminated with her, behind a podium, delivering a condensed version of what we determined.


So when you see a CEO, a politician, even a team lead delivering a message, know that, almost all the time, there is a small army, and sometimes large army, of people behind that one person. In most environments, like the Enterprise, we can say, “Jeremy, on the starship Enterprise, no one is alone.” 9:17


For some of the bigger things, though, you do actually bring others in with you. You’ll see this in presidential press conferences sometimes. The President comes out, makes some big announcement about an executive order or something and then hands the podium over to the expert in the field to go into more detail or answer questions. When I have testified in front our state legislature, I have both brought someone with me and been the person someone else brought to respond to specific questions or go into more operational detail.


In this episode, Picard brings Troi with him when he interacts with Jeremy Aster. He knows that delivering the message is his responsibility; he is the leader, but he also knows that he does not have the expertise, the skills or even the interest to provide Jeremy the care and support he is going to need.


Worf is desperate to take responsibility, “Capt. I must accompany you. No, this is my responsibility.” 4:52 but Picard is right to take that on. One could almost make an argument that Worf could accompany him to observe and learn, but put yourself in the shoes of a 12-year-old that is being told their only parent has just died an unexpected death. 3 adults, one the bigshot captain dude and another an almost freakishly large, aggressive looking alien…yeah…not gonna go so well. But you know what Picard did do? Who he did bring? He brought Counselor Troi. He brought the person that could respond to specific questions and provide meaningful care and comfort to Jeremy.


There is not one of us that is all of the things. None of us are experts in everything. And none of us can look at a scenario or prepare for something and see all the possibilities. That’s why we need diversity. But, like I have said many, many times before, diversity on its own is meaningless. You have to actually use what it offers, and that, at its simplest, is different viewpoints. That is the power of asking for advice. That is the power of seeking counsel. That is the power of a trusted consultant. It is the power of not being alone.


<<Hailing Frequencies>>


I want to share some new reviews with you!


Big Jags on Apple Podcasts says, Interesting angle related to business. This podcast is interesting because it uses the Star Trek shows as examples of great leadership. He gives specific and actionable insights and activities related to leadership. Fun to listen to even if you don’t watch Star Trek. Guarantee you’ll learn something.


Thanks, Big Jags!


Also on Apple podcasts, Emjay217 says: Love the approach to leadership practices. I’m not a regular fan of Star Trek programs, but I’m super impressed with this podcast and the energy in each episode. I like the premise of using episodes of the Star Trek universe to pull out timely leadership practices and tips. Nice work! Definitely recommend this for any leaders that also love sci-fi!


Thank you, Emjay217!


One more, also on Apple Podcasts, OTBL1 says: Very well done! I am not a Star Trek fan, not because it isn’t entertaining, rather much of its core messaging is extremely problematic.


That being said, Jeff creates a very entertaining and well done podcast that really draws you in. His message is distilling leadership principles from the episodes, which is something on which we can agree.


Jeff’s experience, humor, and obvious talent comes through each episode and leaves the listener entertained, engaged, and thinking. I don’t know what else you would want. If you are a Star Trek fan, this is a no-brainer, if you are not, I still encourage you to listen. You will find as I did, that it is well worth your time.


Thank you, OTBL1!


I so appreciate all the ratings and reviews that people leave for the Starfleet Leadership Academy. Just head over to Apple Podcasts, Podchaser, or Castbox, leave a review and I’ll read it here on the podcast.


And to be sure I see it, take a screenshot and send it to me. You can get it to me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and most other social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Troi is amazing in this episode, a k i n.


Computer, what are we going to watch next time….


Oh, wow. A theme emerges. Again, we will be watching the 5th episode of a third season, but this time it will be from The Original Series, And the Children Shall Lead. Oh, I remember this one. TOS’ third series has some pretty interesting episodes and this is very much one of those. Imagine, if you will, a group of kids surrounding Captain Kirk, doing the ring-around-the-rosies thing. Yeah, this is that one! I’m going to have a lot to say about it, for sure, but it has some absolutely epic Spock and McCoy moments that I know we’ll be talking about.


Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!