Asking Questions and Addressing Complacency. And the WRONG Way to Onboard
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Next Generation, Q Who (Season 2, Episode 16). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Picard and Geordi LaForge.
"Resistance is Futile." Or, as they say in this episode, "You will be punished."
Q wants to join the crew of the Enterprise! And, shockingly, he doesn't deal with rejection very well. When he plunges the Enterprise into an existential encounter, Picard demonstrates the value of asking for help. He also shares a valuable lesson about complacency. Jeff shares a strategy called “Kill the Company” to help you combat complacency. We also watch as Geordi LaForge (painfully) onboards a new member of the engineering team.
Link to "Kill the Company" https://amzn.to/3HgqR3y
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. I have a wildly exciting announcement to make. You do not want to miss this, so stay tuned!
We are about to watch one of the most foundational episodes in all of Star Trek. This is the introduction of the Borg! But what do you do when faced with a threat like the Borg? And how do you move forward from an encounter like that? Well, that is exactly what I’m going to be talking about as we start the 16th episode of the 2nd season of The Next Generation, Q Who.
Geordi LaForge and new engineer, Sonya Gomez meet in Engineering. She is positive, energetic and super friendly. We later find out she is a top specialist with antimatter. She is literally everything you could possibly want in a new employee. So, of course Geordi, as Chief Engineer, is encouraging and welcoming to her. Right? Like, there’s no way, as an experienced officer and a manager he would immediately squash the enthusiasm of a new team member? “For someone that just arrived, you certainly aren’t shy with your opinions.” Oh…ok…well, maybe we are.
So, you can probably imagine that Gomez is feeling a little deflated and embarrassed. She tries to apologize…yeah, she apologizes for being enthusiastic about being assigned to the freaking flagship of the Federation!!! Oh, wow. I’m sorry! I just…how could LaForge just shut her down like that?? I mean, if this is how he runs Engineering, he’s going to have a lot of people just punching the clock and putting in the bare minimum. When you have someone, like Sonya Gomez – an expert in their field, excited to be there, enthusiastic about the job and the potential…you stoke that fire! You recognize and reward it! You show that person that every ounce of their excitement is justified and even more. What a massive, huge, missed opportunity for the relatively new Chief Engineer.
Well, Gomez is apologizing for loving her job, and because life sometimes tends to like kicking people when they’re down, she turns around and splashes her hot chocolate right into Captain Picard’s polyester-spandex blend pajama uniform. “Oh no! I’m sorry! Oh, Captain!” She awkwardly tries to rub the chocolate off of him with her bare hands. LaForge says this was his fault, “Indeed,” which is a real step up from encouraging disengagement in his team a moment ago. Picard handles this with a little more professionalism. “Ensign Sonya Gomez, it will be simpler if I change my uniform.” How great is this? He says her name, uses a tone that is warm and says it’s all cool, and he offers a solution. She takes the opening and tells Picard how excited she is to be on Enterprise and again apologizes for her mistake. And all the while, Geordi is behind her, rolling his head around and looking absolutely embarrassed. He gets a parting shot off on her as he gets back to work and she takes care of her hot chocolate mug.
Seriously, I don’t know how anyone could watch this scene and not lose all respect for LaForge. If I ever saw a manager I worked with treating a new addition to the team like he treated Gomez…well, I would absolutely follow the structure I laid out in the episode on Voyager Rise because we would be having a very difficult conversation.
On his way to his quarters to change, he steps out of the turbolift and onto a shuttlecraft. And who is waiting for him? Wearing a Starfleet uniform, complete with Captain’s pips. “Welcome, Picard, to shuttlecraft 6.” That’s right! It’s Q. We first met Q in the Starfleet Leadership Academy episode Encounter at Farpoint, but if you’re new here – welcome – and Q is a nearly omnipotent being from the Q Continuum. He has forged a unique relationship with the crew of the Enterprise, specifically Picard. Episodes with him in them tend to either be existential crises, or, in my opinion, poor attempts at humor. This one, spoiler alert, is of the existential variety.
And speaking of existential threats, we’re back with LaForge and Gomez. He’s praising her work at the Academy on antimatter and taking her to ten-forward; the popular bar on the ship. He wants them to get to know each other better, but he’s not starting out well. “You need to learn to slow down.” The thing here is, he thinks he’s helping her out, but he’s stifling her personality. If we think of management, and even leadership, as a martial art, there was a time when it would have been Krav Maga or BJJ, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – as the boss, I’m going to tell you what to do, how to act, and who you need to be when you’re at work. If you don’t listen, I’ll bend your arm in ways you never imagined possible. What we know now, though, as more mature leaders and managers, is that you are severely limiting the potential of the people you work with when you do this, and you’re giving them no choice but to become disengaged.
Modern management – better management is more like Aikido. You move and roll with the person. You use their motion and their momentum to get to a better place. In fact, I talked about this when I watched Code of Honor, Aikido puts a special emphasis on ma-ai, or the appropriate safe distance between people. Most martial arts teach you to attack and strike as you are able while Aikido teaches you to use your opponent’s motion and momentum to move them out of the way and then to create distance between you; to create ma-ai. And this applies to my metaphor here. An effective manager will use the personality, motion, skills, and momentum of a person to help them reach a better place and then they will create ma-ai; an appropriate safe-distance between them. This can be a large distance, when you have a good relationship with the person and they are skilled, or it can be close, like when you’re still developing a relationship or the person’s skill in an area is still growing. What we see here, is LaForge using, maybe not Krav Maga or BJJ, but something more like karate or tae kwon do.
Well, he goes on, and he brings up part of that dominant, toxic culture that I talked about in Lower Decks: Second Contact. “You’re so young to be so driven.” She says she has to be, she wants to be a part of the greatness that is the Enterprise and knows she needs to be the best to be with the best. Geordi reassures her, but continues to back her into a mold that she doesn’t necessarily want to fit into. “It’ll be there for you, believe me.”
On the bridge, they realize that Picard is not on the ship and that a shuttle is missing. I’m sorry, but if a shuttle was missing, don’t you think they would have known that right away? Eh, maybe they do – maybe this is happening at the same time Picard walked onto the shuttle. Maybe. Well, Worf, the security chief and Data, head of operations, are searching and scanning for the shuttle but can’t find any it anywhere. They continue the search and widen their search pattern.
On the shuttle, Picard is trying to reach the Enterprise, but Q has other plans. “We have business, Picard.” He says he has a request, and agrees to return to the Enterprise if Picard will hear it. And, boom. They’re in ten-forward and everything is back to normal. “Commander, the shuttle is back in bay 2.”
Immediately, the tension ramps up. In Season 2 of TNG, Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast as Guinan, the bartender at ten-forward. She dispenses synthehol and advice with the best of them! Well, Picard and Q pop into the bar and she immediately comes after him. “We have had some dealings. Those dealings were two centuries ago.” They’re both holding up their hands like a wizard’s duel at Hogwart’s. Picard is able to talk them down just as Riker and Worf walk in. Q finally gets to the reason he’s here. You see, he was kicked out of the Q Continuum and wants to join the ship as a member of the crew. Picard is very interested in what this would look like. “Our mission is to seek out new life and you are that.” They talk through it and Guinan is not impressed. Picard, though says no. He says there just isn’t a way that they can trust him and he is a proven threat to the ship and crew.
Q shifts his pitch. I kinda respect this. He’s going for it! He says that there are threats in the galaxy that the Federation is not prepared for and that he can be there with the Enterprise, side-by-side, to help them when they encounter those things. But Picard says they’re ready. That this is exactly what they exist to do. So Q calls him on it. He snaps his fingers, and suddenly, they are 7,000 light years away from where they were! At maximum warp, it would take them about 3 years to get out this far. They are near an uncharted system designated as J-25. When asked why he brought them here, Q says, “To give you a taste of your future.” And then disappears.
They ask Guinan for advice as her people have been in this part of the galaxy. “If I were you, I’d start back now.” Words of warning to you or me – but words of encouragement to Jean-Luc Picard.
They explore the system and find an M-Class planet, a planet that is livable. There’s evidence of a civilization there, but it’s gone, and all technology appears to have been scooped up. Suddenly, a ship starts scanning them and is heading directly towards them. We immediately recognize it as a Borg Cube, but to the crew, and viewers in 1989, it’s just a massive, tangled construction of metal shaped as a perfect cube. Data reports there are no life signs. Picard asks Guinan to look at it and tell him what she knows. She shares that this ship, these people, encountered her people a century ago and scattered them throughout the galaxy. “They’re called the Borg.” They raise shields and are standing by. The music here is great – super tense.
Out of nowhere, a person transports directly into Engineering. They are a mangles mess of machine and humanoid; almost zombie-like. La Forge sees it and raises the alarm. Security, led by Worf, and Picard hurry down. The humanoid, the Borg drone, is completely ignoring them and is just observing the technology. It doesn’t respond to Picard’s attempts to communicate. Q appears and starts egging him on. “You’re nothing to him.” The Borg starts running through the ship’s Computer. We see bureaucracy in action as Picard has Worf intervene. “Worf. Ensign.” Yep…it rolls downhill in the 24th century too, I guess.
The security guard approaches the Borg who just shrugs him off, sending him crashing into the bulkhead. Worf blasts it with a phaser and it crumples to the deck. Seconds later, another appears to replace it. It picks up right where the other left off, not even looking at the Enterprise crew. Worf shoots it as well, but it has a shield of some kind – a very Lynchian Dune shield – that blocks the phaser. It doesn’t even flinch, finishes the job, takes some pieces of the fallen Borg and returns to the Cube.
Powerless, Picard pulls the senior staff and Guinan together. “Because her people had contact with the Borg, I’ve invited Guinan.” She shares that when the Borg encountered her people, they swept through quickly and there was little left of their civilization. Says they don’t do anything piecemeal. They hit and they hit big and they are not open to negotiation. Right on cue, the Borg hail the ship and, for the first time ever, we hear the Borg: “If you defend yourselves, you will be punished.” Troi reads, through her empathic abilities, that there is no single leader, no individual. Instead, there is a collective mind.
A tractor beam envelops the ship! They can’t break away and lose their shields. An almost surgical laser cuts a hole into the ship and pulls a section out. They fire all phasers on the cube, multiple times, and finally break the tractor beam. But the damage is done. Massive sections of 3 decks were removed the ship. 18 people were in those sections. Picard, again, calls the senior team together to discuss.
In Engineering, LaForge and Gomez are working to repair the shields. The reality of her dream assignment is hitting her. “18 people. Dead, just like that.” LaForge here, responds with the right message, but delivered in the totally wrong way. “Sonya stop it. We’ll have time to grieve later.” I mean, he’s right. They have to stay focused on the task at hand; the ship is relying on them. But a little compassion goes a long way. He could have just as easily said, “I hear you, Sonya. It’s devastating. But we have 1,100 people depending on us right now. Let’s get the shields back up and then we can grieve.” Like, how hard would that have been??
In the staff meeting, Guinan shares more about the Borg, and then Q appears. He explains that their motivations don’t match anything the crew would expect. This isn’t about power or politics. The Enterprise is simply something for them to consume and use. Picard tries to call Q out on the 18 people that have died, but he just disappears. Worf reports that the casualty list is ready to be read. But Picard says, “We’ll deal with that later.” I have to disagree with Picard on this one. The shields are back up, they aren’t in an immediate crisis – take 30 seconds and honor those that have given their lives. This is a thing Sisko does beautifully in Deep Space 9. During the Dominion War, he took the time, every day, to read the casualty reports; to see the names of the people that had died. Picard should have done the same. And before you call me out for getting on LaForge about this, the situation is totally different. LaForge and Gomez were responsible for getting the shields up so more people didn’t die. Also, Picard is the captain, the leader. Taking the time to value and respect the lives of the people he works with has a positive effect on every single person on that ship.
After Q disappears, Riker suggests they use this moment of quiet peace to learn more about the Borg, take advantage of the opportunity to collect as much data as possible. He, Data and Worf beam over to the cube to explore.
They walk through the corridors, passing hundreds of Borg. They’re plugged into alcoves along the hallways and are completely oblivious to the away team’s presence. “They either don’t see us or don’t see us as a threat.” They find that the Borg’s technology is far beyond the Federation’s. There’s an iconic scene where the find a Borg nursery, and we get a quick shot of infants with Borg implants. Riker assumes they start as biological lifeforms and, over time, become a fusion of the human brain, AI and cybernetics. While he sees this, Data observes that the Borg ship is regenerating. They beam back over and Picard wastes no time. “Let’s get the hell out of here, warp 8.”
The cube is in hot pursuit. A cool scene that shows the metal of the ship repairing itself. Picard goes to maximum warp and they fire some torpedoes towards them but the Borg are gaining on them. Q shows up and says there is no hope. “Admit it Picard, you are out of your league.”
Picard does what a leader should do here. “You wanted to frighten us? We’re frightened…I need you.” Q snaps his fingers, and they’re right “back where we started.”
Q acknowledges the courage it took for Picard to ask for help but Picard brushes that side, calling Q out for the deaths of 18 people. Q isn’t deterred. He drives his point home, again, that the galaxy is dangerous, and the Enterprise needs to be prepared.
Guinan and Picard are talking in ten-forward. She says that since the Borg are aware of the Federation’s existence, “they will be coming.”
They will be coming. Yes they will be. And the horrors that are right in front of Picard are unimaginable. The Borg were introduced, ultimately, to right the wrong that was the introduction of the Ferengi – we’ll get to that in a future episode. But this is the new big-bad in Star Trek. And they fit the bill perfectly.
Quarks – Ads
A couple things on the production of this episode first. This came out in May of ’89, and if you didn’t know that, the soundtrack would absolutely make sure you did. It’s about as 80’s sci fi as it gets. It’s totally effective, when it needs to be, but it pulled me out of it a few times.
The pacing of the episode has the same thing. For an episode that packed so much in, there are a lot of weird, long shots on the Enterprise that just kind of linger. It feels like they were filling time in them.
The Borg don’t quite look like what we know them as, but they are still great! Terrifying and unique. Given the budget they were working with, they got super creative and ended up with a look that modernizes, but doesn’t change too much, cough cough, Klingons, cough.
I, personally, love Q. They go a lot of different directions with him through the franchise, but, to me, this is where he’s best – when he tests our humanity. The last time we, at the Starfleet Leadership Academy saw him, back in Encounter at Farpoint, he had the Enterprise crew stand trial for humanity. In a one-off line we learn that we got through that successfully! “Put on trial for the crimes of humanity – which were exonerated.” Which is fascinating since this trial continues to come up…even into the Picard series.
We get hints of stuff between Guinan and Q that sounds super cool and interesting. But is never, ever addressed. So if that storyline caught your interest, do not hold your breath for the next chapter.
This was a pivotal episode for Star Trek that changed the franchise forever. Without this, there would be no Seven of Nine, no Locutus, arguably no Deep Space 9, and Voyager would be stuck flying the whole 70 years to get home. In a very real way, this episode set the foundation for all Star Trek that followed.
I covered a lot in the episode recap that probably should actually go in this section. The way Geordi LaForge treated Sonya Gomez is inexcusable. I’m going to talk about the damage that his leadership style causes and offer strategies that can help ensure you don’t fall into the trap he did.
I’m also going to dive into two amazing things we got from Picard. First, he identified one of the core reasons so many companies, so many institutions of business have fallen: complacency. And, he does one of the most powerful things any leader can ever possibly do. He asks for help.
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If I were to describe an ideal employee or member of a team, I would likely say: enthusiastic, friendly, skilled, invested, and eager to take on new challenges and opportunities. What you don’t want is someone that is jaded, cynical, and looks at new things as obstacles or an inconvenience.
Now, based on this episode, I just described two different people. The jaded and cynical person, Geordi LaForge. The enthusiastic, invested person: Sonya Gomez. And we watched that jaded person, who happens to be in a position of authority, do everything they could to shut down all the things that describe an ideal member of a team. In fact, it seemed to me that LaForge wanted someone that was skilled, but also had no excitement about the job and, really, had no sense of wonder.
The strategy I want to offer you is really what I described earlier. Roll with your team members and let them rock! Infuse them with a sense of awe and wonder in what they are doing and feed that excitement. For someone that chooses to serve in Starfleet, being assigned to the Enterprise is literally the dream. Never forget that! And think about your job, and the people you work with. There was a time when you wanted that job. Like, you applied for it, you competed. Even if you were headhunted, you had to go on the dog-and-pony display show of interviews and you tried to win those people over – because you wanted the job!
Now, if that excitement interferes with work, yeah, you talk about that, but not in a way that kills their exuberance. Just redirect it.
After watching this episode, along with the Lower Decks episode First First Contact, which we haven’t watched yet on the Starfleet Leadership Academy, I’ve decided Sonya Gomez is my hero. She overcame so much! She overcame a toxic boss that tried to contain her, and…spoiler alert here if you haven’t watched Lower Decks…and she becomes captain of the Archimedes.
I would be doing a massive disservice if I didn’t bring this point up too. Sonya Gomez, in addition to being new on the Enterprise, is also a woman. A woman working in a highly technical field. I don’t know the lived experience of women like her, I can’t do it justice here. But I can point out that when she and Geordi are talking, “You’re so young to be so driven. I have to be” it’s not just about earning a spot on the Enterprise. Women have to work harder than do in order to get the same recognition. A CNN article by Leonora Risse, I apologize if I pronounced that wrong, from 2018 showed that women, on average needed a year-and-half more education and nearly a full year’s more experience than men to be considered for the same job. She cites an anecdotal example of Donna Strickland, a Canadian physicist that couldn’t get a full professorship until she won a Nobel Prize. I wonder how many of her colleagues were also Nobel Prize winners…I’m guessing somewhere around zero.
So LaForge’s actions weren’t just about stifling an eager new employee. No, they were also exacerbating a male-dominated field and minimizing the effort put in by a woman who just wanted to be able to contribute a level like her male counterparts. Honestly, as we watch more TNG we’ll see a lot more problematic behavior from Geordi LaForge when interacting with women, but for now, we’ll just look at this one.
This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the value; the importance of asking for help. If working with people for most of my life has taught me anything, it’s that no one has all the answers. No one person knows everything. But what’s weird, is that so many people act like they have to have all the answers; they have to know everything. It’s like there’s some kind of gold medal or prize for knowing it all, even though we all know that isn’t possible. Cool thing is, we have an example, in Picard, of someone who does not try to be the one with all the answers. He doesn’t have a need to be the man with the plan.
He comes face-to-face with, well, with death. I mean, it is crystal clear that if they keep doing what they’re doing, the Enterprise will be assimilated and all the crew will be lost. And there’s a version of this where Picard could go all macho and think they need to go down fighting! But, really, that would just be dumb. Nothing would be gained from that. Picard knows this, so the moment he knows all is lost, he gives up all pretense of ego and asks for help.
He admits ignorance. He admits weakness. These are things that many of us have been taught to never, ever do. But he does, and he immediately saves a thousand lives, and, arguably, saves trillions more as the Federation is dramatically more prepared for the Borg than they would have been had he tried to be the expert and gotten the Enterprise destroyed.
So don’t be afraid to ask for help. Owning your ignorance allows other to step in and provide great answers. Socrates, who I’ve been learning more about recently, and, I think, might be my hero, said The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. I couldn’t agree more, and Picard puts that into action here.
Near the end of the episode, Picard says, “Perhaps what we needed was a kick in our complacency.” And I think this might show more wisdom than his ability to surrender his ego and ask for help did.
What do Kodak, Polaroid, Blackberry, Blockbuster, IBM, Sears, AOL, and TiVO all have in common? They failed to innovate. They were too complacent. And of these that still exist, they’re either owned by someone else or they are a shadow of what they once were.
Why do we get complacent? Why do companies actively stifle innovation and experimentation? In my opinion, a lot of this rooted in economic thinking that prioritizes shareholders over customers. But the odds are neither you nor I are going to change that. What we can change, though, is the thinking around innovation and how it combats complacency.
If we compare Starfleet from the time of Kirk to Starfleet at the time of Picard…wow! SO much advancement. But, we see in other episodes of TNG and DS9 that there are still Excelsior class ships in service…lots of them! By the time of TNG, this design is nearly 100 years old! Even the Galaxy-class starship is an incremental upgrade from the Ambassador class which is what the Enterprise C was. So we can take this to mean there were periods of advancement, but a foundation in risk-aversion, cost-avoidance and, well, comfort.
When things are going well, hey! That’s awesome. You should absolutely celebrate that. But know that the things that drove you to make things go well are also driving your competition. They are right behind you. You have to always challenge your assumptions and the status quo. You should always be looking for vulnerabilities and blindspots.
Lisa Bodell wrote an important book that describes exactly how to do this. Kill the Company offers a framework where you give employees freedom to come up with ideas and business plans to kill your company. If you make mechanical keyboards, for example, ask the people you work with to come up with the plan for another company to come in and, well, kill your company. This is a brilliant way to uncover those vulnerabilities and blindspots in your business.
It also acknowledges one of the tenets of Lean and a foundational belief of mine and the Starfleet Leadership Academy. The people closest to the work know it best. They know what is going well; they know what isn’t! They know what needs to happen. So…let them!! Check out the book, Kill the Company for a great guide on how to make it happen. I have it linked in the show notes.
Now, Picard had a different experience here. He got to actually see the next, big thing in action. It’s almost like he got a glimpse of a competitor’s strategic product plan and has an opportunity to shift operations to compete. We’ll see how this goes when we get to the Best of Both Worlds two-parter, but I will share here that the Defiant, the ship in Deep Space 9, exists specifically because of this interaction with the Borg. Picard shared what he learned and Starfleet designed and built a ship specifically to combat this threat. Just imagine if they had been exploring possibilities the whole time and weren’t relying on 100-year old technology to get them by.
I haven’t forgotten! It’s time for the huge announcement! The Starfleet Leadership Academy has joined the ElectraCast Media Better Business Network. I’m joining incredible podcasts like Deep Leadership, DIY For Business, Polly Campbell – Simply Said and others to bring you high quality podcasts that both entertain and enrich. This means you can look forward to the same value, quality and format I offer today, but you’ll be just one step away from a growing network of other great podcasts.
You can celebrate with me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and on all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Ten Forward, a k i n.
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Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
It’s one of my favorites! From the first season of Discovery, it’s Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad. Remember, because Discovery runs in season-long arcs, we’re taking this series in airdate order. The last episode we watched was Lethe, and this one comes right after it. And it is a blast! Harry Mudd makes his return and we have a lot of fun with a classic Star Trek trope.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!
Kill the Company: https://amzn.to/3HgqR3y