Strength Based Leadership Could Have Made the Difference
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Voyager, Good Shepherd (Season 6, Episode 20). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Janeway.
Strength-based leadership is an approach where you, as the manager, leverage people's strengths to better accomplish their tasks. This episode has some excellent examples of how to apply this.
Jeff also takes this opportunity to talk about one of the 8 Deadly Wastes of Lean - Non-Utilized Talent (maybe the deadliest of them all).
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. We have a lot to talk about today and it is some heavy stuff. Have you ever had someone on your team that just isn’t performing? Maybe they aren’t motivated. Maybe they are distracted, or maybe they’re incompetent. Regardless, they can bring down a team’s productivity and their morale. So what do you do about it? That is precisely what we’re going to look into as we dive into the 20th episode of the 6th season of Voyager, Good Shepherd.
Voyager is going to come close to a cool cluster along their way back to the Alpha Quadrant. Chakotay, the first officer, doesn’t think it’s worth altering the ship’s course, so they’re going to send the Delta Flyer, the super cool shuttle that Tom Paris built awhile ago, with a small team to check it out.
The episode opens kinda cool. Just a bunch of crew doing their jobs. This is a part of Star Trek we see so rarely, but I love it. Like, sometimes, being in Starfleet is just a job.
I am pretty blown away, though, by the wild inefficiency here. Multiple people pass a PADD around with orders to change power distribution. One dude hands the PADD to the last dude, who works in some dark, secluded part of the ship. Once he gets it, he looks at it, leans over and pushes a button. Wow. Don’t you think they could have handled that from, like anywhere in the ship? Do they really have a guy who’s job it is to sit there and wait for the pony express to ask him to flip a switch?? Yikes.
Well, button flipping guy, Harren, spends his time living in the proverbial clouds, “I’m about to disprove Schlezholt’s Theory.” 2:07 But begrudgingly does his job.
Seven of Nine, the ex-Borg that joined the crew a few seasons ago has prepared an efficiency analysis of the ship and crew and is presenting it to senior staff. “I’ve given Operations a score of 76/100” 5:42 She is just ripping into the crew. She lists a handful of people in a few departments that are being underutilized or aren’t performing well. Telfer, a hypochondriac, Celes, a sensor analyst that is wildly inaccurate, and, yes, Harren. Janeway makes an important observation, “They’ve never been on an away mission.” 7:52 so she decided they’re going to go with her, on the Delta Flyer, to check out the cluster.
They all try to get out of it. Telfer tries to get a Doctor’s note, but the Doctor is a no-go for him and Harren tries to argue his way out of it, but Janeway is well prepared for someone like him. “That second postulate is going to get in your way.” 11:51
They get onto the Delta Flyer. Janeway is trying to subtly recheck Celes’s work but isn’t as smooth as she thinks. “Captain checks every single thing I do.” 19:10 She tries to connect with Harren while Telfer and Celes eat lunch. He is not too open to it, but he shares that he joined Starfleet just to get the experience he needed to advance his education. He has no interest in Starfleet or its ideals. “Pure theory is all that matters.” 20:53 Seeing that it’s not working, she gets back to work.
They start to pick up weird fluctuations and get rocked by some kind of dark matter wave. Propulsion is down, they’ve lost most of their anti-matter, or fuel, and their hull-plating is compromised. Harren has a theory about how the dark matter was attracted to them. They start looking for evidence on his theory. While they’re doing that, Janeway tries to understand and connect with Celes. As much as she tries, she can’t console her feelings of incompetence.
In testing Harren’s theory, they find a gas giant with rings they can use to recharge the Flyer, basically a jump-start. They use a torpedo, with anti-matter in it as a final test and determine he’s wrong. But, somehow, during the test, Telfer is basically beamed away “I can’t locate him!” 30:36 He appears a few moments later and his worst nightmares have become reality. There is some, worm-looking thing inside him, crawling around. They can’t get a lock on it and he is panicking. Celes talks him down while Janeway and Harren head to the rings. She figures they can recharge, get back to Voyager and get him the help he needs.
As they’re working, she tries again to connect with him. “You don’t know me at all. No, but I’d like to.” 34:23 She talks about connects with others and relationships, but he doesn’t respond and stays focused on the task at hand.
Telfer comes into the flight deck and the worm thing busts out of his body, lands on a console and a bunch of sparks and stuff start spilling out. Harren grabs a phaser, blasts it and Janeway freaks out on him. “What the hell is wrong with you?” 36:14 A group of these aliens follow them into the rings chasing them down. They aren’t going to have time to recharge. Janeway tells them to get to the escape pods while she risks herself to save them. Celes and Telfer refuse to abandon her, but Harren leaves, “then I’ll be going alone.” 40:00 They start to execute a dangerous and risky plan to beg off the aliens, but the escape pod has changed course and is headed to towards the aliens! He’s going to take them out to save the others!! Janeway gets the crew to work together, they’re able to get close enough to beam him out of the pod and blow up the attacking aliens. But…as expected, the explosion takes them out too. We fade out.
And fade back in. They’re in Sickbay, on Voyager. There was no sign of the attacking aliens when Voyager found them. They’re safe. Chakotay asks if she was successful in helping the three out. Using the good shepherd metaphor, “Did she find them? I think so.” 42:46
This episode wanted to be good so badly. As a leadership guy, I was so excited for this one. I mean, it’s perfect! An episode with an experienced leader taking some underperformers under her wing…how could it get better than that? Well…sadly, it could have gotten a lot better.
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One super cool thing about this episode. Tom Morello, from Rage Against the Machine is, and was, a huge Star Trek fan. He was able to get a bit part as a Son’A in the movie Insurrection. But, he also ended up with a part in this episode! When Janeway is looking for Harren, she runs into a bald blueshirt. “Crewman Mitchell, how are you?” 10:33 Totally inconsequential, but super cool!
The story for this one, though, like, it just didn’t make a lot of sense. 6 years into this journey home and they’re just now talking about 3 underperformers? Then they encounter a mysterious, new life form that defies the known laws of physics, but they just blow them away, not that they’re gone and leave them in their dust? And, how do they have a dude who’s only job it is to push a button?!? Yeah…it just doesn’t hold up.
But, really, this one has two, major strikes against it. First, and we’ll look at this in the Command Codes section, but, first, Janeway does a terrible job connecting with and motivating these people! She comes across as privileged and out of touch. If it weren’t for Telfer getting possessed by a dark matter worm, the entire mission would have been a failure.
And second, none of this means anything! We don’t see Harren or Telfer again and Celes shows up for a few moments a few episodes for now as basically a person in the hallway. All of this time, all of this development, for nothing. Janeway is no better or worse from the experience…literally nothing changed from minute 0 to the end.
I can’t believe Voyager was running out of story steam at this point; they have an entire season to go still! But very much not the show’s best outing. But, would I recommend this one? Yeah, actually. And I’ll explain why next.
An entire episode focused on connecting with and providing motivation for three underperforming people. This is fantastic! We have a lot that I’m going to talk about in this one.
Whose job is it to be sure every person on a team is given the opportunity to succeed, and how do they do that? Janeway knows this is her responsibility and I’m going to talk about how she went about this, where she was right, and where she missed the boat.
I’m also going to talk about one of the Deadly Wastes of Lean. I talked about all 8 of them in the episode on DS9’s Whispers, but here, today, I’m going to talk about Non-Utilized, or Wasted Talent.
And that’s not all! Tal Celes describe the nightmare so many people find themselves in at work. Let’s look at that, see why it happens and then talk about what you can do about it.
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Before we get into the heavy stuff, I want to bring up a super quick thing that happened here. Now, they didn’t play this the way I’m going to describe, but I’ve always jumped at the chance to rewrite Star Trek to get a point across!
When she runs into Crewman Mitchell, Tom Morello, she’s on her way to talk to Harren, but she doubles back to ask Mitchell, “Junction room 16?” 10:23 As the Captain of the starship, I am wildly confident she knows precisely where junction room 16 is. But she took like one minute to exercise a little humility and ask one of the crew people for directions. In that minute, she helped make Mitchell feel important. I mean, he personally helped the Captain! How cool is that?
Sometimes, as leaders, we need to take these small moments to help other people feel important; heard. People love to feel important, and when they do, they will often surprise you with the awesome things they do.
I’ve shared before that I used to manage movie theatres, right? Well, if you’ve ever been to a movie, you know they cost an arm and a leg, and people are often not happy about something. Hmm, that kinda sounds like most all retail, doesn’t it? Someone is always going to have a complaint. When I had particularly aggressive complainers, I would do everything I could to make them feel important. Let me run through an example and then I’ll break it down.
‘Hi, I’m the manager, Jeff. I understand the temperature in the theatre wasn’t as comfortable as you were hoping. I’m sorry that you were disappointed by that. Here’s a free pass for the next time you come see a movie here, and my card. And, can I ask you a favor? The next time you come, and anytime you come, really, will you find me, or give me a call, to tell me about your experience. I’d really appreciate that.’
I’d walk up to them, introduce myself and immediately acknowledge their complaint. Notice I didn’t tell them they were necessarily right, I just acknowledged their complaint. Then I’d add immediate value by giving them a free pass. Those steps are critical because they know who I am, they know I am listening and they have already benefitted from this interaction. They’re already huge winners!
But then I pivoted. In a way that helped to make them feel important, I asked for their help. I told them I valued their opinion and invited them to share it.
Now, most people, I never heard from again. They probably used the free movie and threw my card away. But that’s fine. I’d rather never hear from them again and have them not complaining to everyone about my theatre, right. But the ones I did hear from, the ones that followed through, became loyal customers and even suggested some great improvements.
What Janeway did here was open the door for Crewman Mitchell to maybe share his thoughts and ideas in the future. Or, worst case, he felt a little more connected to his Captain.
Ok, sorry for the tangent! I thought it was important enough to get into.
So, let’s talk about what a nightmare the workplace is for too many people. When Janeway and Celes are testing some of Harren’s theories, Celes shares what her daily life looks like. “On Voyager, nothing I do is that important.” 25:00 Could you imagine feeling like this, every day? The reality is, a whole lot of people do. They feel unsupported and that their work just doesn’t matter. Now, some of you might be thinking that that’s just the way it is, or too bad, so sad, or, just get over it. Or, one I hear an alarming amount of the time – you should just feel lucky you even have a job.
Oof, I tell you what. Ain’t no company paying enough for me to feel like this!
And I’m not the only one. Gallup’s 2021 data has some numbers that really drive this home. 85% of employees – they study over 2.7 million workers each year – but 85% of them said they were either not fully engaged, or the absolute worst case scenario, actively disengaged at work. That’s like 2.3 million people out 2.7 feeling like Celes!
And that’s not just a bunch of people not feeling good at work. That translates to, according to Gallup, about $7 trillion in lost productivity. That’s trillion with a T. So, yeah, it matters when people feel like this.
But why do they? Well, there are a lot of reasons why this happens, but I am going to boil it down to one, very simple thing. Poor leadership and management. In this case, Celes’ manager, Seven, just sees her as a problem, and, sadly, not a problem to be solved, but a problem to be ignored. And I think this happens far too often. Managers see an underperformer, and instead of working with them, coaching them and helping them, they either try to get rid of them, or, maybe even worse, just ignore them.
There’s an approach to leading people that I get very excited about and it’s an approach that would really help Seven and Celes here. Strength based leadership. This is where you actively work to identify the strengths people have and then help them apply that to their work. We got to see a glimpse of that in this episode. Celes was clearly struggling with her core work; they even made a joke about it when she was counting down to the explosion in the planetary rings. But we saw where she shined. Janeway called it out at one point, “You showed evidence of unconventional thinking.” 25:42 Her idea of analyzing the hull wreckage from the first time they were damaged was a unique approach and helped them get closer to a solution.
Seven, if she were actively looking for her strengths, could leverage her innovative approach to things instead of trying to force her into a defined process. If nothing else, this would connect Celes to her work and stop the nightmare of her day-to-day.
Unskilled managers often rely on strictly defined processes and stifle the possibility of changes or innovations. They feel that they are managing their teams and achieving their outcomes if they are forcing everyone to do things exactly the same every time.
Now, there are absolutely situations where a strictly defined process is important; the medical field is a place I can see this, or operating a nuclear reactor in a metal tube hundreds of feet below the sea. Yeah…you follow those instructions step-by-step. But if you’re most anyone else, some freedom in getting to the required outcome will give you better outcomes. People simply have different styles and it’s critical you let people work with them.
Here's an example of the danger of blindly adhering to a way to do things and not allowing people to utilize their strengths. I’m a drummer, right. Back in the late 90’s, that’s how I made my living. I often sat in with bands as a sub or I’d record parts for bands without drummers. In those situations, it wasn’t my place to express myself musically – I was playing a part and fulfilling a role; I needed to do it their way. And that’s cool. That’s what the job was. But here’s where it would get into the territory Celes experiences.
Let’s say I’m sitting in with a band, we’ll call them the Delta Flyers. Their drummer is out sick and I’m filling for one of their gigs. So far so good, right? Well, the Delta Flyers’ drummer happens to be left-handed and plays a 6-piece with two up and two down. That means two toms on top of the kick drum and two on the floor. Well, I am right-handed and generally play a 5-piece with one up and two down, but they insist that I play on the other drummer’s kit, and I play left-handed.
Now, part of being a pro drummer is adapting to different setups, so I can work with the layout of the kit being different. Will it hinder my performance? Absolutely, but in a way I can manage. But switching from right to left-handed. YIKES! That is rough! I mean, I can play left-handed, a little, but I can’t get in there and rock it.
So they force me into this setup and style and I suck; I am terrible. Only good thing they can say is that I kept the beat, but I missed fills, flubbed parts and ruined the overall performance. They’re furious, I’m embarrassed and no one wins at all. My strength is a 5-piece setup and playing right-handed. I could play every single part they had, but forcing me to do it in a way that was the opposite of my strengths ruined everything.
Seven could have worked with Celes to find how she could use her thinking to better perform her duties but instead saw her, and treated her, like a problem. Where can you focus on your team’s strengths instead of forcing them into processes and approaches that simply do not work for everyone?
What a waste, right? In the Starfleet Leadership Academy episode on DS9’s Whispers, and in the blog post I wrote about this on the website, starfleetleadership.academy, I talked about the 8 Deadly Wastes. I know, I know, most people talk about the seven deadly sins, but these are so bad, there are 8! And they make up this super cool acronym: DOWNTIME. The wastes are Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-Utilized Talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion and Extra Processing. You can read that blog post or check out the episode for an intro to all 8, but here, here this is clearly wasting talent.
Celes can be so much more, can do so much more, but she isn’t encouraged, or, really even allowed to be. They introduce this concept near the beginning of the episode in the senior staff meeting. And it’s introduced, ironically, by Seven. Her feedback to Torres is about Harren. Torres does not take it well, “What’s this I’m guilty of? Failure to utilize expertise?” 6:02 But this is, literally, a deadly waste! It is killing her department’s performance! Harren has multiple degrees and has been published multiple times for his work in cosmology, yet she has him working in the plasma relay room. Literally pushing a button. That is a huge waste!! His studies and theories could be opening doors to new methods of interstellar travel, or to navigating wormholes or folding space, I don’t know! Like, seriously, I have very little idea what cosmology is, but, given Voyager’s predicament, I can imagine his skillset and education could help them a lot more, like a huge amount more, than flipping a switch on deck 15.
Again, this can be resolved, or at least mitigated, through strength-based leadership. But there is a crucial step in practicing this. Listen, this might sound like the simplest thing I’ve ever said, but it is probably the most powerful. As a leader, as a manager, the single, most important thing you can do to effectively lead your team is to spend time with and get to know the people. That’s it! That is the mystical, magical secret of leadership. You take time to get to know the people you work with and then you will understand what motivates them, what’s important to them, and what their strengths are. If you hire an incredible person with experience, education and expertise, and then hand them a manual and tell them to paint-by-the-numbers and just go step 1 to step 2…you are not only wasting this person’s time and talents, and cheating your team out of all they have to offer, but you are seriously disrespecting and insulting the people you work with. Like, it is a straight up inhumane practice to do this, and, in my experience, is the norm for so many organizations! So get out there and talk to the people on your teams. Like my friend Jon S Rennie from the Deep Leadership podcast says: leadership is a people business so go talk to the people!
Now all of this comes together under the heading of creating and managing a culture. In the culture Janeway works to build and promotes, every single person is important. They are needed and wanted on the team. Now, there are a whole lot of episodes of Voyager that show otherwise, and this approach in this episode is kind of beyond her character, but, in this episode, she is all about it. In fact, she straight up says and own it. “Three people have slipped through the cracks, that makes it my problem.” 8:50
This is, of course, from parable of the Good Shepherd in the Bible, told in the Gospel of John, chapter ten with its roots in Ezekiel, chapter 34. No…not that Ezekiel, but the one where it talks about David being the people’s shepherd. But in the episode, Janeway cites the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18 which is the parable of the lost sheep.
Either way, the story works. The Good Shepherd will lay down their life for their sheep and in the lost sheep, the shepherd will leave 99 sheep to find one that has gone astray or missing. Both of those things happen here. Janeway leaves the ship, in very good hands, and goes after her three lost sheep. And then, when it’s all on the line, she risks her life for her crew.
Now, for you, it is highly unlikely you’re ever going to have to potentially sacrifice yourself to mysterious dark matter creatures so three of your teammates have a chance to get to safety, but, I promise you, you will have people that underperform on your team that won’t be as easy as a few coaching conversations to set on the right path.
You see, to me, that is the most fascinating thing about this episode, and the thing that I think happens in most organization that we never talk about. These are three people that are underperforming and don’t necessarily want to perform. Harren hates his job and hates being on Voyager. Celes is living a wide-awake nightmare every single day and just wants out while Telfer, well, maybe Telfer wants to do a good job but he has so much of his own stuff going on he can’t even think about his duties.
I work with people like this and I’ll bet you do too. Voyager is, of course, an extreme example. The people I work with, for example, could totally leave if they wanted to; they aren’t stranded 10’s of thousands of light-years from home. But, generally, they don’t. And that’s an entirely separate, equally fascinating topic – why don’t people leave jobs they hate. We will absolutely get to that one in the future!
But, this is a situation we often find ourselves in. We don’t get to wipe the slate clean, fire all the underperformers and start from scratch. And this is a good thing! That is a wildly expensive way to try and solve this problem and introduces so many uncontrollable variables. So you work with the people you’ve got. Janeway is all for this but Chakotay is ready to relieve them of duty and just let them hang out on the ship. “What can we do. Some don’t make it past their first year, but we’ve got them.” 8:18 And while he’s not wrong, he’s missing the opportunity that Janeway sees here. She believes they can keep them on duty and improve their scores. And she puts this into practice.
She starts out great. She attempts to connect and form a relationship with each person. That’s critical. Relationships are everything when it comes to leadership. But here’s where she misses the boat. She makes it all about her. She takes surface level details about the crew and then launches into stories about her past and her experiences. Those stories are great, and super valuable, but later. After you’ve listened to them. Heard their stories, asked questions about their experiences. If you just tell me a thing about you to try and connect with me, especially if I don’t want to be in the conversation, that is not going to go well.
And, honestly, had she just changed that, this could have been a success. Well, a more complete success that didn’t necessarily require an emergency and near tragedy to bring everyone together. I loved how, early on, Janeway was clear in what she was trying to accomplish. “This mission could be better served with more experience. No, not this mission” 13:36 Like, yeah, the mission to chart a star cluster and learn some stuff could have benefitted from a more experienced team, but the mission here was to help motivate and re-engage these team members.
So, here’s what you can do, literally right now, to achieve this mission as well. Janeway identified a low stakes operation, but not a trivial one. Like, this assignment mattered and there were real risks associated with it. What happens in your workplace that is the same? Maybe it’s a qualifying meeting or call with a potential customer. Maybe it’s leading the teardown after day onsite. Or maybe it’s working the till after the lunch rush. Do they still call it a till, by the way? Or is my age showing??
The next thing she did was accompany them. So you do the same. Let them know what the job is, or the task. Prepare them for the weird stuff that might happen and then join in with them. And then, here’s where you go a little opposite of Janeway. Here, let them take charge; let them take center stage, and you just play support for them. And the whole time, engage with them. Listen to them. Ask questions about them. People absolutely love talking about themselves, so let them do that!
I remember working the till at the buffet I worked at back in high school. I’ve talked about my incredible boss there, Jason, before. What an incredible person; I learned so much from him. But one day, it was kinda slow, between the lunch and dinner rushes. I was bussing tables that day, but the work was pretty slow. So he let me work till for about an hour. I had never done it before. He showed me the basics and then let me rock it. He hung out for awhile, and then checked in from time to time, but he let me take charge, in a controlled way that minimized risk. It was great! I learned a new skill, and look, like 30 years later I’m still talking about the impact it had on me! That’s what I call engaging and providing motivation for the people you work with!
You’ve probably heard the ad that I include on the podcast for the free copy of the performance review I put together. In case you skipped it, real quick, I developed a performance review document based on what Saru did in Discovery’s Choose Your Pain. It’s pretty cool! And all you have to do to get it is head over to starfleetleadership.academy and join the mailing list. Or click the link in the show notes.
I just wanted to take a moment to personally invite you to get this review and join the mailing list. I send a newsletter out every other week, usually when a new episode comes out, and I include some pretty cool stuff. There are deeper dives into the some of the concepts I talk about on the podcast, and I share other fun things going on with the Starfleet Leadership Academy. So head on over to starfleetleadership.academy, or click the link in the show notes, and join today.
You can also connect with me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and on most all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Tom Morello, a k i n. I’d love to hear from you on the socials about how you offered an opportunity for the people on your team to do something that built engagement and helped to provide motivation for them.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
Oh, this is a big one. The 19th episode of the 5th season of The Next Generation, the First Duty. Wesley Crusher is at Starfleet Academy and a part of Nova Squadron, an elite group of pilots at the Academy. They were practicing, things go south, and all 5 of their ships were destroyed and one of their classmates doesn’t make it. We not only get peak Picard in this one, but also the introduction of Tom Paris actor, Robert Duncan McNeill to the world of Star Trek. This is one I have been eager to do ever since I started this podcast! I’m excited to dive in with and would like to ask you a favor because I’m so excited! To get ready for that episode, will you tell a friend or a colleague or someone you think would enjoy or benefit from the podcast about the Starfleet Leadership Academy? That would mean the world to me.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!