Nov. 1, 2022

TNG: The First Duty

The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth!


On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Next Generation, The First Duty (Season 5, Episode 19). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Picard and Nick Locarno.

 

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What does truth mean to you, as a leader? What impacts can it have? They can be huge! In fact, telling the truth would have saved Walter White's life in Breaking Bad!

 

We meet Nick Locarno in this episode. All the makings of a strong leader. But he misses the mark. He focuses and unites his team to the team itself, and not their greater purpose. Learn from Nick's mistake and hear how you can better unite your team.

 

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Transcript

A quick heads-up on the content of this episode. I will be sharing stories and talking about friends and loved ones dying. I realize this can be an emotional topic and just wanted to let you know ahead of time.

 

<<Intro>>

 

Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it's scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based! And so is this episode. We’re going to talk about how the truth can set you free by helping you grow and develop. We’re also going to look at the importance of experience as a leader as we watch an absolutely episode. It's the 19th of the 5th season of The Next Generation, The First Duty.

 

<<Transporter>>

 

The Enterprise on its way to Earth and Starfleet Academy. Captain Picard is giving the commencement address. They’re also eager to visit Wesley Crusher, who is in his second year there. En route, the superintendent, Admiral Brand calls Picard, privately to share some difficult news “There’s been an accident.” 1:42

 

Now the show sets this up to make us think something happened to Wesley, dropping right into the credits from this message, but right afterwards, we find out that he’s ok. He’s part of an elite flight group, Nova Squadron. They suffered a terrible collision during practice. All 5 ships were destroyed and one of their classmates, and friend of Wesley’s, Joshua Albert died. The superintendent says a flight recorder was recovered and they will be initiating a full investigation.

 

Picard and Dr Crusher, Wesley’s Mom, visit him. We meet the squadron leader, Nick Locarno, he was also checking in on Wesley. Wes asks Picard and Crusher to excuse them so he can talk with Locarno. We get our first glimpse at Nick’s leadership style, “Don’t worry about. We’ll be fine as long as we stick together.” 9:19 He has united Nova Squad as a very tight-knit team.

 

As Picard is strolling around the Academy, he runs into the groundskeeper, Boothby. Boothby is someone we’ll talk about quite a few times here on the Starfleet Leadership Academy. He’s kind of a mentor to a lot of the people that have moved through the Academy. He was around when Picard was a cadet and they had quite a connection. And he continues to share his wisdom, this time on the incident. “Nick Locarno is what keeps that team together. He’s their friend, coach, and father.” 30:16

 

The investigation begins. Locarno leads the testimony and says they were practicing for a maneuver called a Jaeger Loop. The rest of the Squad supports him and his testimony, but the Admiral isn’t quite buying it, “That was not the question I asked you.” 14:59 It’s honestly kind of ridiculous. It’s like they think these wildly experienced officers have never flown maneuvers before. They honestly come across as incompetent in this scene, at least in my opinion.

 

And then it goes south. Locarno decides to take a different approach, “Josh was having problems.” 17:03 With Josh’s dad in the gallery, he straight up throws him under the bus. Ouch. At that, the Admiral calls for recess until the next day when they should have the data from the restored flight recorder.

 

The cadets meet afterwards – which is kind of weird. Like, don’t you think they’d separate them or have them under some kind of surveillance? Well, regardless, the cracks are showing, “You said we weren’t going to have to lie to them.” 19:33 They are not ok with blaming this on Josh. Nick gaslights the team into backing him up, “None of us have wanted to say it but we all have the same thought.” 19:55 and he starts telling them how to respond to the flight recorder questions.

 

The investigation picks back up and Wesley is talking them through the flight recorder data. He sticks to the talking points Locarno laid out, and then the bottom drops out, “Mr Crusher, are these in ships in a diamond-slot formation? No, sir.” 27:34 Sensors picked up footage that directly refuted his testimony.

 

Picard asks Geordi, the Engineer, and Data, to review all the evidence and testimony. He’s looking for anything that could possibly help Wesley out. What they find, though, isn’t helpful at all. “The engine would ignite the plasma. That’s what they were trying to do.” 32:03 Picard figures it out. They were trying to perform Kulvoord’s Starburst. A wildly dangerous maneuver that looks amazing, but has been banned because the last time it was done, all 5 pilots died.

 

He confronts Wesley. This is an iconic Picard speech that I’ll talk about in the Command Codes. But he’s figured out this was Locarno’s way of trying to become a legend. Wes doesn’t agree with it but he doesn’t deny it either. He tries to stick to what he said, but Picard knows what’s up. “A lie of omission is still a lie.” 34:41 He tells the story of when they met, back in Encounter at Farpoint. Tells him how brilliant he is and how much potential he has. Then he outright tells him to come clean or he will tell the Admiral what happened.

 

Wesley checks in with Locarno who tells him to lie. That if they stick to their story, don’t say anything more, they’ll get through it. But Wesley’s integrity is shining through, “I’m going to tell them what happened.” 37:23 And Locarno’s desperation does too. Makes it Wesley’s problem and tells him he’s betraying the team. “Must have been a pretty good speech to turn your back on your friends.” 38:17 Locarno storms out and Wesley is left to consider where his duty lies.

 

We get to the conclusion of the investigation. It looks like Nova Squad is going to keep their mouths shut. For that, they’ll get formal reprimands in their permanent records, and that’s it. But then, at the last minute, Wesley speaks up. “Yesterday I testified about the loop. That wasn’t the whole story.” 41:19

 

The consequences dished out are severe. Locarno gets expelled, and Wesley loses all his credit hours and has to repeat his 2nd year. He takes it well, well, professionally. He feels very, very guilty. “They should have expelled all of us.” 43:00 Locarno, though, stood up for the team and asked to take full responsibility. He did what a leader should do in this situation. And Wesley does as well. He accepts his punishment, “You have difficult times ahead.” 44:06 and is thankful for the opportunity to continue his studies. Picard wishes him well and returns to the Enterprise.

 

<<Red Alert>>

 

What a great episode! Wil Wheaton in top form and, in a weird way, a redemption story for Wesley Crusher. This is what Star Trek is all about. Duty, integrity, truth, justice and the Federation way! TNG did courtroom stories pretty well and this one ranks up there with classics like The Measure of a Man and The Drumhead, for sure!

 

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Sometimes Star Trek tries to be something it’s not, and this episode had a moment of that. When Picard and Boothby are catching up, they’re talking about some epic wrestling match Picard was in. Boothby says, “Except that time you caught the Ligonian in a reverse body lift.” 10:51 This is what happens when a group of sci-fi writers try to do sports. Do you know what a reverse body lift is? A body drop…yeah, Picard literally dropped a dude. You know, the thing you do in wrestling. Yeah, Picard did that and apparently it was epic.

 

Wil Wheaton is honestly next level good in this episode! He literally sounds like he’s throwing up in his mouth when he’s responds to the Admiral. So good! He, and the character of Wesley Crusher, were pretty universally hated ever since Encounter at Farpoint. He was just too perfect. He was a kid and understood the physics and warp dynamics in a way the professionals on the flagship of the Federation had trouble with. And he had this kind of know-it-all attitude too. Just not an easy character to like.

 

But in this episode, not only do we see that he has real flaws, but he has some actual, emotional depth. Wil Wheaton has always been a skilled actor, just watch Stand By Me if you don’t believe me, but he was pretty hampered in Star Trek, until now. He brought so much of the tension to life in this one. Just really, really well done.

 

And then there’s Nick Locarno, played by Robert Duncan McNeill. If you’ve been following along the last few years, you know McNeill as Tom Paris on Voyager. Now, the rumor is that the original idea was for Paris to be Locarno, like reprise the character, but Jeri Taylor and the rest of the Voyager producers felt that is wasn’t redeemable enough for what they had in mind, but they loved McNeill. Understandably too! He’s great as Tom Paris and he’s great in this one too. The other rumor, though, is that they didn’t want to pay the writer the created the character any kind of royalties or fees in Voyager. Either way, we still got McNeill in an awesome role on an excellent show. All good!

 

You know how, a lot of times, the guest stars are just that? Guests on a show. Like, they do well enough but you can tell they’ve been there for a day. That was not McNeill. He felt like a regular on the series, like he belonged there. Now, that could also be recency bias, but, either way, he was great in this role.

 

Now, I’m not the only one that thinks this episode is great. Shortly after it aired, it became required viewing for cadets at the US Air Force Academy. They have said it demonstrates the honor code perfectly and is a launchpad – see what I did there? – for in-depth discussions on it.

 

Super cool!

 

I was pretty disappointed in the Voyager episode, Good Shepherd, because the time Janeway spent with the underperformers never led to anything. Like, it all just happened and then life moved on. But that’s not the case with this episode! No, it’s a pivotal moment in the development of Wesley Crusher, and we see one of the member of Nova Squadron, Sito, returns in the amazing 7th season episode, Lower Decks.

 

Oh, and one other fun note. The sort of rank pins they use for the cadets are great! Cool uniforms and rank pins that make sense. And, helped inspire the t-shirts early subscribers to the Starfleet Leadership Academy patreon!

 

<<Command Codes>>

 

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world...would do this, it would change the earth. That’s a quote from William Faulkner, one of the great American writers, and it is so appropriate for this episode. I’m going to talk about why the truth is a crucial part of leadership.

 

I’m also going to look at Nick Locarno and how strong leadership skills do not necessarily make for a good leader. He brought a team together, united them, but focused them on the wrong things, and someone died because of it.

 

Picard also did an incredible job in this episode of demonstrating compassion for Wesley. I’m going to look at how you can do this in a healthy way.

 

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But before we get to these amazing topics, I want to share a story. A sad story, but one that has guided much of my life since it happened. Back, around 10 years ago I worked in HR. I was one of three administrators that reported to the director. It was far from my favorite job, but the director was one of my favorite people and favorite supervisors I’ve ever had. She developed me into an industry that I didn’t have a lot of experience in, and she challenged me to be a stronger leader.

 

To relax, she and her family enjoyed cruises. In fact, she said she measured time in BC and AC – Before Cruise and After Cruise! She had taken about 2 weeks off to go on a cruise. When she came back to the office, she was tan, happy and well rested. We met and talked through what had gone on in her absence and she had some very kind and encouraging words for me. The day ended and we all went home.

 

The next morning, the CEO asked to meet with me and my two peers at 8:15 in the morning. She told us that the director had passed away in her sleep that night. Completely unexpected. We were devastated. But, we had a team of around 50 people that we had to inform next. We were a good team, the three of us, so we worked together to share the news. The rest of the day was filled with crying, hugging and sharing stories.

 

Then a little after 3pm, the other two administrators and I met to talk business. How were we going to continue business while the CEO worked to fill the position? Seems like a normal and expected thing to happen, right?

 

Well, to be honest, it haunts me to this day. We were able to grieve for 7 hours, and then we were back to work. A person who had literally given their life to help others and support their team and we took 7 hours for her. Fast forward about 10 years and now, most people don’t even remember who she was, or even remember her name. It breaks my heart.

 

Now, normally, when I tell stories about my work experience I don’t share names, out of respect for their privacy. But, I’m going to share her name, to say it, and to recognize the impact she had. Carolyn Ross. Carolyn, I miss you and thank you for everything you taught me.

 

Ok, I didn’t just randomly decide to share this story. It’s related to the episode. Early on, the Admiral says they considered canceling the graduation ceremony because of Joshua’s death. But then she says, “We’ve decided the commencement will continue. Life goes on.” 6:11 Now, I took exception to that statement and decision, based on this story, but, but the thing is…she’s not wrong.

 

Like so many things that involve people, it’s not simple. Life does indeed go on. Work does still need to happen. But there is something more important than our work, and that’s the people we work with.

 

So, this is ‘world according to Jeff’ stuff here, so take it as you will. But, as a leader, the lives of the people you work with should be sacred. Honor them, respect them, and treat them with dignity and respect all the time. When something terrible happens to them, you take time for them and for the team. When you do go back to work, you do it with them in your thoughts and intentions.

 

You see, the thing we did wrong, which was partially an organizational thing, but more an impact from the leadership of me and my peers – impact of our leadership failure – was we saw grieving and working as an either/or, as a binary choice. We could do one or we could do the other. But the reality is you can do both, and it’s important that you support people in doing both.

 

One last takeaway from this story and I’ll move on. And I’m going to be pretty blunt about it. Your work does not care about you. It will not give its life for you so you should not give your life for it. We lost an incredible human and we paused for 7 hours. In most cases, organizations don’t even pause for that long. This is me telling you to be sure your priorities are in order. Yourself, your family, your friends, the people that are important to you – this is where you should place your worth and focus your efforts; not your job and not your employer. Yes, you might matter to the people you work with, and that’s great, but the organization will barely notice you’re gone; it will just keep moving. And that’s ok. Just know this and don’t give so much of yourself to a thing that will never do the same for you.

 

You know, I’ve done this a few times now; telling a quick story at the top of the command codes that ends up taking a huge chunk of time. Maybe I should plan these things a little better…

 

But, this is a good pivot into compassion. That’s a thing we hear a lot about these days, right. Leaders must show compassion. I couldn’t agree more, but the danger is that, in showing compassion, we often assign so much of our emotional selves to what the person is expressing that it impacts us too. And that doesn’t help anyone. Picard is faced with that in this episode. Before we know anything about the starburst or the cover-up, all we know is that Wesley lost a friend.

 

When Picard first sees Wesley, he immediately shows care and compassion. “Would you like to talk about it? I’m available should you change your mind.” 7:37 This is especially notable because it’s Picard! I mean, he’s great, but he is not necessarily knows for forming emotional attachments with people, especially younger people. But, he is doing exactly the right thing here.

 

When you find yourself in this situation, where someone you work with may need someone to listen to them, you do that. And, you should have the awareness to offer to listen, like Picard does here. That means knowing your team; talking to them; getting to know them.

 

But, the point here, is that you have to listen, you have to be engaged, but you cannot participate in their emotion or their situation. Your role is to listen, not solve. If you’re a manager, like me, you are kind of hardwired to try and solve problems when you see them, but compassion doesn’t require that. In fact, it’s counter-productive to showing compassion.

 

Had Wesley taken Picard up on his offer, I am very confident we would have gotten the perfect example of this behavior from Picard. He would have listened, acknowledged what he was saying, and then thanked him for sharing it with him. That’s it! He wouldn’t try to solve anything, he wouldn’t have talked about the time a friend of his died. None of that. The key to compassionate listening is exactly that: LISTEN!

 

And speaking of listening, Nova Squadron very much listened to Nick Locarno. Let’s listen to him to talk to the team and you’ll see why it’s easy to want to follow him. “We have some tough times ahead.” 13:04

 

You see? He connects the team, he’s up front with them and makes them feel better about the challenges that are coming. Boothby described him as a coach, a father-figure and a friend. All of that sounds great, doesn’t it?

 

But it really isn’t. You see, in my experience, these are all mistakes that inexperienced leaders and managers make. They think that connecting with people means some type of friendship and they often end up considering themselves a parental figure of some kind. A leader shouldn’t be seen as either of these things. Friendly, not necessarily a friend, and a partner, not a parent. In fact, going back to the Starfleet Leadership Academy episode on Voyager, Once Upon a Time, parentalism is one of the aspects of the toxic dominant culture that pervades most workplaces.

 

The other thing Nick does is unite the team to the team. We’ll be fine if we stick together; don’t forget your duty to the team; you don’t get to decide the fate of the team. “Resign your appointment. For the team!” 38:59 And on the surface, this seems great. But it’s short of the mark. Yes, you need to be united with your team, but to what end? Like, why does the team even exist? What is it working towards?

 

Focusing on the team itself becomes self-defeating; an ouroboros, to use one of my favorite words. The snake eating its own tail. If the team exists to do something really hard, let’s say supporting a team of salespeople that are only focused on their numbers, but the leader of the team brings the team together solely for the purpose of the team, eventually, they’re going to stop doing the hard and tedious work the sales team depends on them for. Why? Because it sucks! And eventually, someone will say they don’t want to do something anymore and the team will stand beside them because it’s always team first. Next thing you know, they’re doing their own thing and have left the rest of the organization in the dust.

 

Again, Locarno is likely doing this because of his inexperience. It is far easier to bring a team together by focusing on itself. The hard, and more rewarding work is uniting the team to a greater purpose and the mission and purpose of their organization. And that’s exactly the wall Locarno runs into in this episode. He believes, and has encouraged the rest of Nova Squad to believe, that if they just stick together, stand united as a team, everything will be ok. But they haven’t been brought together as a team to be ok and help cover-up their mistake. Now, they’ve been brought together to demonstrate some of the finest qualities in Starfleet Academy. To give other cadets something to aspire to so that they can support the mission of Starfleet and the Federation. Had Locarno united his team to that, this would have been a very different episode.

 

Truth is a word that gets used by a lot of people and in a lot of ways, unfortunately, not all in good ways. Did Nova Squad attempt a banned maneuver? Yes. And that’s the truth. Was it the Squad, or Josh’s or Locarno’s fault that it went south and Josh died? Well, that’s a complex truth. And it just gets more complicated from there. But, sometimes, oftentimes, maybe, the truth can be a pretty apparent and obvious thing. Picard says it best. In one of his most famous lines in all of The Next Generation, he talks about the importance of truth: "The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it's scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based, and if you can't find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened, you don't deserve to wear that uniform.” 35:31

 

So, tying this back to Locarno, had he united the team as a force for truth, things would have gone differently. After the crash, Locarno and the team would have found their flight instructor, told them they were attempting an illegal move and Josh died. They would have received reprimands, graduation would have happened, we would have heard Picard’s commencement address and <<CLOSING CREDITS>>

 

It's actually a thing I like to call the Breaking Bad problem. We got 5 seasons of high drama all, basically, because Walter refused to tell Skylar about his plan or their financial struggles. He refused to tell her the truth and, after 5 seasons, dies because of it. Had he told her, it would have been a pretty boring, maybe 3-episode mini-series. Instead, he becomes a meth lord, a murderer, and destroys his family’s lives. Kind of like Locarno and Wes; Locarno getting discharged and Wes having to repeat his sophomore year.

 

But it doesn’t feel good to admit you were wrong or that you did something wrong. For some reason, we all think we’re more clever than the universe and think we can hide our mistakes. But we’re almost never right. And the thing is, like so many things with being human, the opposite is actually true. Admitting the thing you did wrong, telling the truth, almost always has a better outcome than trying to hide it.

 

I’ve talked before about a program that I managed a few years ago that had a really poor reputation. For a few years it had been so focused on its policies and on being right that it forgot about its customers. When I started managing the program I aimed to fix that. I got in front of as many customers as I could, and, believe me, they were eager to talk to me. They had all kinds of things they wanted to say to me! But instead of showing up and just taking the heat; letting them yell at me, I told the truth. I stood in front of them, introduced myself and told them that – over the last few years we have done an amazing job of becoming a barrier to you doing your business, and I’m here to help change that. And then I’d talk about our customer-focused plans. It was incredible! I remember watching the wind visibly disappear from their sales! They were ready to let me have it! But I was just honest with them and owned our mistakes. It actually endeared us to them and went a very long way in repairing our reputation.

 

This works because we all fundamentally understand that mistakes happen. We also fundamentally understand that trying to cover them up is cowardly and totally lacks integrity. It’s weird to me how difficult this is for people to grasp. We’ve all heard the stories of famous failures that led to huge successes, right? Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan, JK Rowling, the list goes on and on. Yet we still try to hide failure, hide our mistakes. Boothby says it perfectly, “You made a mistake. We all have…The important thing is what you did with your life afterwards.” 11:38 Don’t beat yourself up for mistakes; just own them and learn from them! Walter White and Nick Locarno would have really benefited from following my example, or even the example that Wesley Crusher eventually shows.

 

Despite all the great things that come with telling the truth, it still takes a lot of courage. For all the times people will be understanding, there are times people won’t be. In this episode, a person died. That cannot go unaddressed. In my short version of the episode earlier, Nova Squad was still reprimanded. But, it wouldn’t be unimaginable for them all to have been expelled or forced to repeat a year in the academy. I think, given what we know about Starfleet and its belief in the truth, owning what happened right away would have had a dramatically better outcome for Nova Squad.

 

Wes shows that courage as he becomes more uncomfortable with Locarno’s leadership. He’s a second-year in a group of 3 and 4-years and he says, “I don’t know if I can do this, Nick.” 21:00 He understood what I’ve been talking about here. Locarno is telling them to lie, to protect the team. But Wes, with the help and guidance of Picard, understands there is something bigger than the team. There is the truth. He shows the courage to speak up and, overall, things end better for everyone.

 

Better, Jeff? Really? Had he kept his mouth shut, there would have been a few reprimands and that’s all. But Josh’s Dad would have thought his son to have been less than what he was, Nova Squad would have to live with the guilt and shame of what they did, and they would be directly violating the core mission of Starfleet. In the end, Nick Locarno took the heat for his team. That’s what a leader does. He did it because he saw that there was something bigger than the team, and he followed through with it.

 

It's honestly too bad we never hear from him again. Given his final act, along with the raw leadership skills we see from him in the episode, I am sure he becomes someone great. But, I suppose we’ll never know.

 

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

 

Have you had a situation where you pulled a Wesley Crusher? Where you had the courage to speak up and tell the truth? I’d love to hear about it and I’m curious to hear how it helped your team out.

 

Reach out on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast or, if you want, on the other social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Truth, a k i n.

 

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

 

The 11th episode from the 6th season of Deep Space 9, Waltz. This is, in my opinion, one of THE episodes of DS9. It’s Sisko and Dukat, alone, on a planet and Dukat is not well. I’m always excited when a Deep Space 9 episode comes up, but this is very much one to look forward to!

 

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!