Sept. 7, 2021

035: TOS: A Private Little War

Kirk creates an inclusive environment and demonstrates emotional intelligence.

On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Original Series, A Private Little War (Season 2, Episode 16). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Kirk.

Captain Kirk both completely blows it and gets it right. He’s leading an away team mission that goes awry and he ends up getting poisoned by a mugatu. 

Why was he leading the away team you ask? Fantastic question.

Before he does that, though, demonstrates vulnerability and impressive emotional intelligence. He, once again, shows he is a strong manager that invites opinions, even when they are different than his. 

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Welcome, everyone! Thanks for joining me today. The theme of Kirk’s masterful management practices continues in this episode. He demonstrates authenticity and impressive emotional intelligence, creates a welcoming and inclusive environment and helps his team manage through emotional responses. 

All of this as we start the 16th episode of the 2nd season of The Original Series, A Private Little War 


McCoy is gathering samples while Kirk and Spock explore an area. Spock finds tracks of a large, dangerous creature from this planet called a mugato. Kirk led the survey team to this planet back 13 years ago when he a lieutenant. He waxes nostalgic about how peaceful the inhabitants of the planet were “Absolutely no fighting among themselves.” And almost immediately, that gets thrown in his face. We hear the inhabitants yelling at each other and carrying flint-locks; ancient, by their standards, firearms. One group is setting up an ambush for another group. Stakes get high really fast as Kirk realizes, “One of those men walking into the ambush is Tyree.” Tyree is a buddy of Kirk’s. They lived together when Kirk was undercover and conducting the survey.

We’re going to talk quite a bit about young Kirk and his opportunity as a lieutenant to run a mission on his own. Because, and let’s be honest here, if Kirk followed the example of his captain from back in those days, he wouldn’t be planetside right now. But more on that later. 

Kirk throws a rock as a distraction, and the fight is on! (Star Trek Fight Music) They scuffle as the crew tries to rendezvous for a beam out, but Spock gets shot – right through the heart. He has the wherewithal to stop Kirk from using his phaser as McCoy calls for an emergency transport. 

Dr M’Benga and Nurse Chapel are waiting for them in sickbay. McCoy shares that “lucky his heart’s where his liver should be or he’d be dead now.” Pretty racist way to assess his physiology. Still, he’s in bad shape but not as bad as he would be if he had been shot through the heart. 

As M’Benga and McCoy are triaging Spock, Uhura comes over the comm with a red alert. It’s Klingons! Kirk heads to the bridge and they set up their orbit to avoid detection. Kirk and Scotty debate the terms of a treaty being violated here. Kirk believes the Klingons are supplying weapons technology to the indigenous people of the planet while Scotty says there is no proof of that. Both the Federation and the Klingons have a right to research on unclaimed planets.

Now they never reference which treaty they’re talking about. I assume it’s the Treaty of Organia which was signed back in the first season of TOS, so about a year before this point. 

Now that’s some deep nerd stuff there, but what’s important here is that Scotty feels comfortable enough disagreeing with Kirk. And not just disagreeing with him, but doing it on the bridge, in front of everyone else, AND, doing it in a conversational, non-threatening way. This invites Uhura and Chekov to join in, and unfortunately, Kirk shuts it down. “Why not machine guns? I did not invite debate.” 

Not a great move by Kirk here. But he follows it up with a brilliant and humble move. “I’m sorry. I’m worried about Spock.” Now that was a great pivot! Leaders and people…I know that might be a surprise to some of us, heck, it might even be a surprise to some leaders out there too! But that means leaders make mistakes. A strong leader, though, will own those mistakes and take accountability for them. That’s exactly what Kirk did. So not only did he recover from shutting his crew down, but he opened the door to more of a connection with them because he was open, honest and vulnerable. 

Dr. M’Benga, who interned on a Vulcan ward so he knows their physiology well. McCoy says he couldn’t be in better hands. He explains that Spock’s body will remain basically unconscious as it heals itself. Dr. M’Benga tells Nurse Chapel that if he wakes up she needs to do absolutely anything Spock tells her to; it will be a part of the healing process, no matter how ridiculous it may sound. 

McCoy and Kirk have a great back-and-forth where Kirk flexes his manager muscles. “I can’t leave Spock here. You just indicated you could.” 

And then it gets even better. He wants McCoy to go with him to the planet to see if the Klingons are legitimately conducting research or not. And then he owns his bias and his limitation. “I need help. Advice I can trust.” 

They head to the planet’s surface, dressed as native inhabitants. Scotty is left in charge of the ship and warns Kirk that to remain undetected by the Klingons, they’ll be out of communication and transporter range sporadically so they set up rendezvous times. Kirk decides not to risk checking in with Starfleet Command because it could jeopardize their ability to stay hidden. To his credit, he at least notes this in his log so that if something goes south it’s documented that why he’s doing this on his own. 

On the planet’s surface, they’re wearing the weird, civilian outfit Commander Shepherd can wear in Mass Effect 2. They decided to skip the stylish wigs the inhabitants wear, though.

Immediately, a mugato attacks!! McCoy blasts it with his phaser but not before Kirk is infected with its poison. The Enterprise is out of communicator range so they decide to find Tyree. Kirk believes they can cure the poison. 

They get to the village and they fetch Tyree. Tyree is the leader of the village and his wife knows how to cure the poison. And she is something else. We see them on the hunt, Tyree with his bow and arrow. She’s pressuring him, hard, to get the firesticks the villagers have. We also learn that she and her people understand the herbs of the planet and use them for both medicine and to manipulate people by basically getting them super high. 

In the cave, McCoy uses his phaser to heat up rocks around Kirk as he’s in extreme shock. While he’s finishing, and isn’t watching the cave entrance, Tyree’s wife, Nona, sees him using it. She doesn’t say anything but gets a look on her face. 

She talks to Tyree and manipulates him into telling Kirk’s whole story. Which, honestly, how does Tyree even know the whole story unless Kirk actually blew it on his mission back 13 years ago?? He agrees.

 They come to McCoy and she has a mahko root, which is basically a wobbly, rubber poop toy you used be able to order out of the back of a magazine! She puts it on the mugato wound while Tyree beats a drum and, BAM! He’s healed up!! 

God bless McCoy in this scene! He looks disgusted and horrified but he lets it happen. He knows he can’t help Kirk, and this is the best bet he has. 

He thanks Nona and says, “I would like to learn more about this.” Which is great! You have to love the curiosity he shows here. This is McCoy demonstrating cultural competence like a pro! He absolutely has his own biases here, but he doesn’t approach this from a place judgement. No, he’s curious. He wants to understand. 

He gets a cryptic answer that basically amounts to Kirk and Nona’s would are joined now and he won’t be able to refuse her any wish. Hmm. Pretty sure that’ll come up again. 

Kirk wakes up and is excited to see Tyree. They head off to talk about the villagers and their firearms. He says the firesticks starting being used about a year ago. He agrees to take Kirk and McCoy to the village to scope it out. Nona comes in and says she knows about the phasers…and “Tyree has told me much of you.” Welp…cat’s out of the bag. She tries pressuring them to share everything with her but Kirk stand up to her and explains that both their ethics and their rules prohibit them from sharing technology like this. 

Tyree stands up for himself. He insists they deal with this peacefully and they do not kill. Nona is deeply offended and storms off. “You have the wrong friends and I have the wrong husband.” Tyree supports Kirk, though, and they head off towards the village. They arrive and Kirk is worried they’ll have to fight. McCoy, McCoy is so awesome. He tries to shut Kirk up by saying, “he agrees with us. Killing is stupid and worthless.” Yep, that’s about as plain as you can say it! 

In one of the buildings, we meet the leader of the villagers, Apella, who is talking to Krell, a Klingon. He’s giving improvements on the design of the firearms. 

In the village, Kirk and McCoy find a forge where they make the flintlocks. A quick scan shows the materials came from somewhere other than this planet. They’ve confirmed the Klingons are involved just as he and Apella come into the forge! They hide and Krell reveals some of the plan, “you will be a leader of a whole world.” But McCoy makes a noise, and it’s on! Full on Star Trek fight ensues! Villagers are firing at them as they run. But they make their escape. Barely.

On the Enterprise, Spock wakes up. “Hit me! Harder!” She and M’Benga oblige and he comes to. “That will be quite enough. Thank you, doctor.” He’s in good shape and returns to duty.

On the planet, because they’ve confirmed the Klingon involvement, Kirk is teaching Tyree’s people how to use the flintlocks. McCoy is losing his mind! “Have you gone out of your mind?” Kirk explains he will maintain a status quo; he won’t give them superior weapons, but will “equalize both sides.” Sounds familiar, right? In context of the Starfleet Leadership Academy, this sounds familiar to TNG’s Too Short a Season. 

Kirk then gives a monologue about what Star Trek calls the Brush Wars of the 20th century that are clearly meant to represent the Vietnam War, or the American War as they call it in Vietnam. He is supporting the policy of superpowers supplying the opposing sides of the conflict with weapons to maintain a status quo. “If they get even more. Then we arm our side. A balance of power.” But McCoy is not accepting it. He says that because Tyree won’t fight, this balance of power means he’ll be one of the first to die. 

I love that Kirk’s crew are comfortable disagreeing with him. There is a lot of behind the scenes work going to make that happen that we don’t get to see on screen, but it’s clearly happening. 

Kirk goes to Nona to try and convince her to help convince Tyree to fight. She has other plans, though. She basically roofies Kirk. He resists, but the herb superb does its job! Just as Tyree rounds the corner and can see them, Kirk embraces and kisses Nona “kiss me.” Tyree aims the flintlock at them, pauses and throws it to the ground, disgusted with himself. 

A mugato attacks! Kirk is too high to do much of anything. In fact, he probably just sees some dude wearing a stuffy, hot ape costume! Well, he eventually pulls his phaser and blasts the mugato. Nona knocks him out and steals it. 

She runs off and is intercepted by some villagers. She talks a mean game, offering them the phaser. But they don’t know what it is or understand it so they attack her. She gets stabbed just as Kirk and Tyree’s crew come upon them. It escalates into a firefight and we get our second, full-on Star Trek fight of the episode! Kirk hits a textbook dropkick on one of the villagers! Tyree is going off! He’s mounted on a villager, grabs a rock to smash his head…and Kirk stops him. Nona dies from the stab wound and Tyree succumbs. “I want more of these, Kirk.” Kirk has a defeated look on his face as Tyree heads off after the villagers that ran away. 

This is dark. Kirk is beside himself. They break it with a classic McCoy Spock moment: “You’re alive? An illogical question.” And then Kirk gives an order that I hope keeps him awake at night. An order Scotty can’t believe is real. “A what?” He wants 100 flintlocks produced for Tyree and his people. “A 100 serpents for the garden of eden.” 

<<Red Alert>>

This episode came out in February 1968, having been written in late ’67. There is no way I can truly know what the world was at that time, but I know it was a different place, in many ways, than it is today. This episode was clearly targeted at a very specific situation of the time, but like so much of Star Trek has a message that resonates through time. 

Quarks – Ads 

First off, I don’t think I liked this one very much. The character of Nona was really interesting but was written and performed in such a late-60’s way. Over the top, weirdly erotic, and not as mysterious as they maybe intended her to be. In fact, I feel like she brought down every scene she was in; just totally took me out of it. 

And then, while Star Trek can have near-timeless messages, the allegory is so on the nose it’s almost insulting. I think that’s a Rodenberry thing. Taking a good idea and then removing all sub-text and subtlety. A Jud Crucis is credited with writing this episode but that’s not even a real person. It’s name the actual writer, Don Ingalls used instead. Apparently he wrote the script and then Rodenberry did a rewrite of it. Ingalls hated the rewrite so much he used this name that he says meant “Jesus Crucified.” Wow, that’s intense. But based on interviews with Ingalls, the episode we just watched is very, very different than what he intended. 

The beginning of this episode, before we learn about the flintlocks, well, and even after that, I suppose, was a really good illustration of the value of the prime directive. Here is a planet and a culture that, left to itself, could grow and develop into a peaceful utopia in a few thousand years, at least based on Lt. Kirk’s assessment. But, through interference, now they’re on a path to violence, war and destruction. The serpent in Eden reference was very on point and very accurate. 

<<Command Codes>>

I’ll be honest. On my first watch through of this I thought this would be the episode I couldn’t find any takeaways or lessons in. Wow, was I wrong! We’re going to see the brilliance of Kirk’s management as he creates safe and inclusive environments, is open and vulnerable, and helps manage through his emotions and the emotions of his crew…well, most of the time. 

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Let me start right off by calling this episode out for doing what so much of the Original Series, and Enterprise did. They made this about the captain instead of the crew that should have been running this mission. Why? Why in the world was Kirk on the planet’s surface when they were just surveying plants and herbs? He had no business being there. I mean, Sulu, you know, they guy that isn’t even in this episode, is a trained botanist! 

13 years ago, when serving under Captain Garrovick on the USS Farragut he was assigned to lead the planetary survey crew for this planet. He made recommendations that steered Federation policy regarding the planet. He even made a friend in Tyree that he was able to lean on here to save his life. 

Instead of Kirk offering that same opportunity to another person on the Enterprise, he had to lead this expedition himself. He literally stole an opportunity from a member of his crew. His survey was part of what led to his early promotion and has become part of his story; maybe even part of his legend. But instead of letting one of the 400 plus people on the ship have a shot at that, he did it himself. 

When has this happened to you? Seriously. When have you been ready and able, maybe even excited to take on a task or do a presentation or handle a responsibility and your boss swooped in and did it instead? 

Not only does that feel terrible, but when that happens you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity. Let me give an example here. I recently hired a new sales manager for one of my organizations. They’re super talented but pretty inexperienced. We’ve only been working together a few months but we’ve worked together closely on a number of pitches and opportunities. For the first few, I drove the discussions and they observed. Then we shared roles where we pitched together with them taking more and more of the pitch each time. Now, this shouldn’t sound too groundbreaking or revolutionary to most of you; this is kind of how you do it, right?

Well, after a short amount of time, they were ready and able to rock it on their own. And they’ve been doing a great job. Until I messed it all up by being Kirk. 

One of our long term clients reached out direct to me to make some modifications to our agreement. Normally when those come in, I send it off to my sales manager and they do what they do. But this was someone I’ve worked with for a lot of years. So I took the meeting. What’s worse, I didn’t bother telling my sales manager. 

We meet have our call, we work out the details, we have a few laughs…it’s great! Until it wasn’t. I met with my sales manager and explained what I had done and what we had agreed to and it absolutely did not work for her. She had already committed the person I promised to our client over the dates I committed them to. 


Now, we were able to fix that. I ate a little humble-pie with the client, renegotiated dates and we were good. Super easy. But now I’ve damaged my relationship with a newer member of the team that is integral to operations. And not only that, I robbed them of the opportunity to meet this important client. I screwed up and the organization suffered because of it. 

To keep this from happening again, I have to pause. When people reach out to me I can’t try to be the hero; that is NOT my job. My job is to develop my team and help create heroes. That’s what Captain Garrovik did for Kirk. But Kirk and I both held onto the ball…and dropped it.

Now, for me, I have the responsibility and desire to repair an important professional relationship. Kirk, arguably, plunged a culture and civilization into a cycle of violence and war. But at the core of it, we both did tremendous damage because we wanted to be in the front. 

And that offers a decent segway into the takeaway. Managing emotions. I let my emotions drive me. I let my excitement to work with a fun person and group override what I know I should have done.

Kirk shines as a manager, and as a human, in a couple of scenes here. First, and we’ll talk about this more shortly, Kirk has worked to create an environment where it’s safe for people to disagree with him. That’s awesome! Author and speaker L. David Marquet says the most valuable opinion is a dissenting opinion because it offers a different view of a situation or a problem. 

But in this episode, while that’s happening with Scotty, Uhura and Chekov on the bridge, he lets his emotions get the better of him and he snaps! “I did not invite debate.” He let his emotions override the environment he’s worked hard to create and he immediately owns this, “I’m sorry. I’m worried about Spock.” 

Leaders are human and, according to Spock, humans are flawed. I don’t know that I’d say we’re flawed but we absolutely need to work hard to manage our reactions to situations. And, frankly, that’s no always possible. In fact, Kirk’s reaction here is directly related to how deeply he cares for his friend. It would be in-human for him to not be impacted by what’s happened to Spock. 

But he still has a responsibility to his team and his crew. Spock’s crisis does not give Kirk permission to disrespect his crew. So he manages his emotions here, by being vulnerable. 

Self-regulation is one of the foundational aspects of emotional intelligence. The other four are self-awareness, social skills, empathy and motivation. In that moment of vulnerability when he apologizes he demonstrates impressive emotional intelligence. He’s aware that he reacted without empathy so he regulates himself to a point he can use his social skills to share his authentic feelings. Very well done. 

But Kirk isn’t just a great self-manager, he’s a great manager for his team as well. If you remember the early scene in sickbay when we learned Dr. M’Benga had experience with and understood Vulcan physiology, you’ll remember that Kirk needed McCoy on the planet with him. McCoy had an immediate, emotional response. He didn’t want to leave Spock! 

While that’s touching, it’s not practical. As the Chief Medical Officer, he has a highly capable team and, by his own words, has Spock in the best hands possible. Kirk gently reminds McCoy of what he said, “I can’t leave Spock here. You just indicated you could.” 

Three great things in this moment. First, he doesn’t judge, accuse or get upset with McCoy. He’s gentle and factual. Second, he reminds McCoy of his own objective assessment. He doesn’t put words in his mouth or twist what McCoy said to achieve his aim. And third, he moves right into why McCoy is needed somewhere else. 

So he’s gentle and objective, acknowledges and uses McCoy’s words and gives him immediate purpose. And when he gives that purpose, he is honest and vulnerable. 

In fact, Kirk’s vulnerability as a leader plays a huge role in much of this episode. We saw him acknowledge that he was distracted because of Spock’s injury and we saw him ask McCoy for help. 

I’ve worked with leaders and managers before, and I’m sure you have to, that feel some weird need to appear bulletproof. They’re unflappable and appear impervious to the dumpster fires they may be surrounded by. 

Those are VERY frustrating people to work for! 

Luckily, Kirk isn’t one of those people. No, he sets an example here that we can all follow we should all follow! Let’s dissect the moment he snapped at the crew on the bridge.

Scotty, Chekov and Uhura were offering their input and opinions, that happened to be contrary to Kirk’s, and he just shut them down. Hard. Now, you do that more than one time and I promise you, people will stop disagreeing with you because you just made it clear that you’re right no matter what and you aren’t interested in other opinions. And that, that’s akin to death for a team or an organization. 

He didn’t stop there, though. He caught himself and then made himself vulnerable by sharing his fear and his feelings. In that moment of vulnerability, he bought more than you might think.

Not only is it ok to disagree with Kirk. To share your dissenting opinion. But he cares about the people on his team. And if you’re one of the people on the bridge with him in that moment, that means you. In that second of honesty and vulnerability, he clearly communicated that he cares for the people he works with. And I don’t know about you, but me, I just might fight rabid dogs for someone that cares about me. 

The same goes with McCoy. He could have just shut him down on his worry for Spock and told him he was beaming down with him. Instead, he asked for help. Oh that’s powerful. We talked about that with Janeway and Neelix in Voyager’s Homestead episode. Generally speaking, people want to help. It makes them feel important and needed. That’s what Kirk did here. He made McCoy feel needed. And, for me, if I know someone cares about me and needs me, well, I just might fight rabid dogs for them.

Sorry, I think I have some weird obsession right now with rabid dogs! Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading ValueTales books with my daughter, specifically the one about Louis Pasteur. Have any of you ever read these books?? They’re from the 80’s, I think. I love them, total nostalgia. 

I’ll wrap up by acknowledging what I’ve mentioned more than just a few times so far. Kirk has created an environment and relationships where his team feels safe disagreeing with him. There are two key moments in this episode that highlight that. The scene on the bridge with Scotty, Uhura and Chekov, and then near the end when McCoy calls BS on Kirk’s balance of power soliloquy.

I know it wasn’t actually a soliloquy, I just like saying that word. Soliloquy. 

There’s a lot that goes into creating an environment like this. It’s consistent behavior where you not only invite other people’s input and opinions, but you actively seek them out. We recently saw this from Picard on Code of Honor where he asked for opinions from the crew. 

But inviting and seeking out input and opinions isn’t enough. You also have to take it seriously. You can’t argue with them about it. You have to welcome the input. And a great way to do this is to actually accept and implement the ideas that others bring up; when it makes sense to do so. 

This is so easy to do, but you have to do it consistently. And you have to be inclusive in doing it. There are two people that just about every team has. There’s the person that won’t hesitate to speak up and then the person that you have to pry input and participation out of. When you’re inviting or seeking input, you cannot let the first person dominate. Bring the other person in. ‘Blah, blah, so that’s my initial idea. Hey, Ted, I want to hear your thoughts on this.’ Get them in before they get crowded out.

You do that consistently, and people will participate. They’ll disagree. They’ll offer input and you’ll have a better, more complete set of options to work with. 

Invite and seek out; welcome the input; and be sure everyone is included. Rinse, repeat and succeed! 

<<Hailing Frequencies>>

I’d love to hear your story about a time your supervisor stepped in and took an opportunity that should have been yours. You know, like Kirk…and I did. Tell me all about it!

You can reach me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and you can follow me on all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Tyree, a k i n. And bring your stories and thoughts to the Starfleet Leadership Academy podcast group on Facebook. Click the link in the show notes to get there. I can’t wait to see you!

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

Season 5, episode 8 of Deep Space 9, Things Past. How timely! I recently recorded an episode with Brent on the Beam Me Up podcast to talk about this season of Deep Space 9. I’m not sure if that episode is out yet, but I recommend this podcast to all of you. It’s a fun way to watch through Star Trek. 

In this episode, we’ll get a real look at the Cardassian Occupation on Deep Space 9, then called Terok Nor. I’m looking forward to it!

Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!