You are a Manager, not a Parent. And Neelix is very much not a parent.
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Voyager, Once Upon a Time (Season 5, Episode 5). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Janeway and Neelix.
This episode introduces us to Flotter!! But more importantly, it shows how paternalism, or parentalism, is never effective when you're leading a person or a team.
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. One of the hardest parts of being a leader is knowing how, when and to whom to tell news and information to. Politics play a role but more often it’s emotion. I am going to break down a complete breakdown for you to demonstrate how to be honest with your team, even when sharing bad information or even when you aren’t able to tell the whole story. Let’s get into it. The 5th episode of the 5th season of Voyager, Once Upon a Time.
We’re in a magical, forest fairyland. Naomi Wildman is exploring and meets Flotter and Treevis. Flotter is a water character and Treevis is, yep, a Tree character. She’s in a children’s holonovel where she gets to interact with the characters and is a part of the story. How cool would this have been growing up?? So cool!
Some important background here. Ensign Samantha Wildman, who we’ll meet in a bit, was pregnant when Voyager left on its mission. She gave birth to Naomi in the Delta Quadrant. Naomi’s father, who is back home, is a Ktarian, so Naomi has a different physiology and grows at a faster rate than humans. Since Samantha is a working, single-mom, Neelix helps to take care of Naomi.
And speaking of Neelix, Ensign Wildman is on an away mission with Paris and Tuvok, so he’s on babysitting duty! “It’s bedtime.” 3:36 She’s supposed to be back to the ship tomorrow, but tells Naomi, when she tells her good-night, that they might be delayed. They’re navigating around an ion storm. “I can’t keep ahead of this thing. Brace for impact!” 4:54
The shuttle they were on has fallen out of communications with Voyager, but Harry Kim has figured out the general area they were likely headed towards, given the direction of the storms. Captain Janeway orders the ship to head there and begin the search.
For some reason, Neelix is in the briefing. He’s worried about Naomi but he immediately shows why he’s not fit to be taking care of a child, “Maybe we shouldn’t tell her anything.” 8:01 Janeway trusts Neelix to make the right call and to keep her busy.
So, it would be super easy to make this episode about what an absolutely terrible example of parenting Neelix shows through this whole thing, and it’ll absolutely come up a few more times, but I’m going to try and keep this focused on the story and the leadership lessons that come from it. And before you get upset and tell me that parenting is also leadership, I agree with you! 100% parenting needs strong leadership! But this isn’t a parenting podcast and I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert.
Ok, Neelix and Naomi are in the mess hall. She sees 7 of 9 and says she’s afraid of her, “Don’t look. She’ll assimilate you.” 9:08 Neelix tries to tell her that 7 is cool and then Kim pulls him away. Seven asks to sit with Naomi. They’re interaction is golden, absolutely amazing, even if it’s just a few seconds long. We get a lot more of this through the series and I love all of it. In fact, we saw some of it in the podcast episode on Voyager One. Well, she leaves as Neelix comes back, “I am Borg.” 10:17 So good!
The shuttle has crashed and is “3 km beneath the surface.” 12:48 and covered by rock. Oh, and the atmosphere is toxic so they’re on borrowed time. Samantha Wildman is injured and needs surgery. She’s in a bad way. Voyager has located them but things do not look good from their vantage point, “Either they crashed or vaporized.” 14:38 They send teams down to investigate.
Neelix keeps Naomi on a normal routine. The Doctor teaches her biology, “The mitochondria is the warp core of the cell.” 15:18 Naomi is super smart and is rocking it; she can even back-and-forth with the Doctor! But, being smart, means she’s not an idiot. She’s starting to ask questions about her Mom and people are struggling to avoid the topic with her.
Neelix shares some of his childhood and Naomi has a lot of questions. You and I haven’t gotten into Neelix’s history yet. High level, there was a war that did not go well. Neelix’s family was massacred in that war when the Haakonians unleashed a metreon cascade; a super weapon of mass destruction. Neelix was spared because he, well, more on that later. For now, we’ll just say he wasn’t there when the cascade was triggered.
So they go back to Flotter. It’s a chapter where they discover fire. And Neelix thinks it’s way too scary for a child. “It’s time to go. Don’t argue with your godfather.” 20:50 Neelix is complaining to Harry Kim about the book and Kim says every kid loves it, even he did. He thinks Neelix is making a big deal out of nothing, and then he freaks out. “What’s wrong? Everything!” 22:06 A lot of the episode goes into Neelix putting his trauma of losing his family onto Naomi despite literally every other person telling him otherwise. “I adapted. The child will adapt as well.” 28:15
He finally intersects with Janeway and she calls him on his irresponsibility. “Your mission was to occupy her time, not lie to her.” 29:15 He argues with her but she doubles down; calls him into her ready room and tells her that he needs to tell her everything. But he loses it! “If you can’t tell her, I will. You don’t have the right!” 30:18 But she is awesome here! She keeps her tone calm and quiet. She sympathizes with him, acknowledges his feelings and redirects him. “I understand, and you’re right. But this is different.” 30:58 This is absolutely masterful! We’ve talked about this a number of times, this is how to immediately de-escalate a situation with someone. He agrees to tell her first thing in the morning.
But, like often happens in situations like this, too little too late. She wakes up and heads to the bridge to find Neelix and overhears everything. “Tell sick bay to standby for casualties.” 34:38 Whoops. He never had a chance to tell her and she walks in in the middle of the rescue operation. He tries to go to her but she runs away. She runs off to the holodeck to be in her holonovel, with Flotter. Neelix finally tracks her down but the characters are protecting her. “You lied to her!” 38:37
He finally comes clean to her. She doesn’t trust him and pushes back, she asks a lot of questions. He tells her the truth about his family and that he was trying to protect her from feeling as bad as he does. She doesn’t accept that, she says that hiding from the truth and your feelings never actually helps. He agrees with her and they leave the holodeck together.
On the planet’s surface, they’ve found the shuttle and are digging them out of the rocks they’re buried under. They can’t get it all the way out, so they beam the entire shuttle to the ship which warps away just in time to miss an ion storm.
Naomi goes to see her Mom. They go see Flotter together and are joined by Neelix and Janeway. Turns out even she used to play in the Flotter books! “Did I ever tell you about the time I flooded this entire forest? I was 6 years old.” 44:56
I watch this episode now, as a father, a lot differently than I did in the past. And that’s a good thing, because in the past, I thought this was one of the worst episodes in all of Star Trek!
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Ok, so I still don’t much care for this one. It’s corny, contrived, and does little more than move the needle with Neelix and his trauma. But, like Star Trek usually does when it’s handed something like this, it made the most out of the situation. The Flotter Novel actors really gave this their all.
Flotter actor Wallace Langham…Yes! That Wallace Langham! The Wallace Langham that was the lab tech guy in the OG CSI; could have gone really over the top with this but he kept it pretty tame. And Treevis actor, Justin Louis even tried to have a little fun where he could, “Timber” 2:20 And, to be fair, his makeup was pretty good. I mean, nothing amazing or anything, but as far as making a dude into a tree, pretty well done.
The star of this episode, and frankly, the only reason worth watching, is Scarlett Pomers’ Naomi Wildman. She plays her from this episode to the end of the series, but, prior to this, had been played by two other child actors. But she is awesome. She works well in the fairly wooden acting style of this genre of Trek and adds a ton of personality. She has this cool thing she does sometimes where she blinks her eyes kind of out of sync, just a neat little character thing. But don’t just take my word for it! She also won Best Performance in a TV Drama Series for supporting young actress in the 1999 Youth in Film Awards just a few months after this episode aired.
And, I mentioned it in the last episode when this one came up, and in the recap earlier, but this is the origin of the Naomi – Seven relationship. We’ll get more of this as we get more Voyager episodes, but I love their back-and-forths. In fact, now that I think of it, I sure hope there’s something of Wildman in the 3rd season of Picard. That would be cool.
Father knows best, right? Well, we’ll see. I mean, we’re not going to spend a lot, or maybe any time talking about Neelix’s approach to parenting, but we are going to talk about the trap leaders and managers fall into all the time: paternalism. Or, as I recently learned, a better way of saying that: parentalism. This is where leaders make decisions and take actions based on what they believe is for their team’s own good. And, spoiler alert, it is not a good thing.
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Ok, we’ll talk a little about Neelix’s Parenting. What he does here is a thing a lot of parents do, unfortunately, and that’s putting their past traumas onto their kids. I’m no expert here, but I happen to know one! Check out my friend Cameron’s podcast, Our Village Stories, for some knowledge on this.
Ok, parentalism. I want to say that I’m using this new word in place of paternalism or even maternalism. I like parentalism because it’s gender-neutral and, quite frankly, it’s a lot close to what’s going on.
When you are a parent, you want what’s best for your children. Part of what makes that so hard is that they so rarely seem to want the same things! I think that, left to their, own, my daughter, for example, would plop in front of a TV to watch Paramount Plus and eat candy. Am I right? So I get to tell her things like, get up and exercise, read a book, go to sleep, wash your face…you know, all those things she’d almost never do on her own but she really needs to.
Ok, that’s not totally fair. My daughter loves reading, so there’d likely be some of that happening. But the rest, maybe not so much.
But the point is, we do those things with our kids because they do not know better. They haven’t experienced the world, they haven’t lost of their teeth because they didn’t brush. In fact, for most kids, at most, they had someone show them cavities at school or had a dentist mention it. Not a big deal to them.
But there comes a time in every child’s development that you are now longer being a good and active parent by doing these things, but you’re actually hindering their ability to grow and learn. Now that is unique from person to person, but there comes a time that you, and again, I’m not an expert here, but, I believe, you shift from what is basically a teller to an adviser.
This happens with the people you work with too. Someone’s first day or week on the job, there’s a lot of telling. Over time, though, you, as a manager, shift to a coach and an adviser. Hopefully, you’re letting the team take care of itself and they’re helping this new person acclimate to the team and learn the job.
But what I want to talk about is more macro than that; more than just the one-on-one interactions you have. What I want to focus on is how you as a manager and, if you have one, your management or leadership team, communicates with and makes decisions for the rest of the team.
There’s a version of this that seems pretty innocent, but is honestly, absolutely insidious. It’s the version of this where leadership has great intentions, much like Neelix does, but they have no business making the decisions. In a recent episode of the Deep Leadership podcast, host, and friend, Jon Rennie tells the story of an organization where morale was in the dumps. Management met about it, they talked about it, they made proposals to fix it and they finally ended up giving everyone on the team a button to wear that said, I love my job!
Seriously! But there’s a reason this happened, and I don’t want to think it was ill intentioned. Like, I think they really felt this would help. But the reason this happened is because, if you relisten to what I just said, you’ll notice that in all the meetings and the stuff that happened, no one ever talked to a single person on the team. No! A bunch of managers, I won’t call them leaders, sat, behind closed doors and decided what was best for a group of people that were not involved in the conversation.
I mean, to say it; to hear it is madness! How could anyone ever think this was a good approach to supporting a team? But this stuff happens all the time. All the time!
I call this Ivory Tower Syndrome. Where a group of people unconnected to the problem decide, on their own, how to solve this problem. And for a lot of organizations, if not most of them, this is the default mode! Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed already, the button initiative did not work. In fact, morale and engagement dropped even lower! I know this may come as a shock, but almost every Ivory Tower decision fails and a whole lot of them actually make the problems worse.
Okay, I want to dive deeper into other situations this happens in. To set the foundation for this, I’m going to say that your team is fully personified by Naomi Wildman. For some of these examples, you, and your team, will be personified by Neelix. Sorry.
But let’s start with the team. Which, frankly, now that I hear myself saying that, that really is everything. That’s like 80% of the Starfleet Leadership Academy. Just start with the team and you’re going to be good to go most of the time! But, really, let’s start with them. Here’s the thing. The people on your team are smart. They know their jobs and they know a lot more about what’s going on in your organization that even you likely do. They are Naomi. They have an intrinsic understanding of how the place works and they understand what’s important what isn’t.
That said, they absolutely need to learn more about the work, they need to check their biases, and they need to have a good support system, for both entertainment and their mental health. Naomi has these as she learns from the Doctor, she will, over time, check her biases about the Borg, and she has Flotter that keeps life fun but also gives her safe space to feel her feelings and keep herself healthy.
And, yes, I am specifically calling out fun and entertainment as things people need at work. But you’ll notice that Naomi chooses what those things are, not Neelix. In fact, she is the one that invites Neelix along with her into that place. I can only imagine what terrible ideas Neelix would have for her.
So, just like your team, Naomi is a very smart person. She understands how things work. So when her manager, Neelix, tries to dance around an issue and not answer her questions, she cries BS! “Has anyone talked to her? Regulations state they have to contact every 24 hours.” 24:07
At this point, honestly, she no reason to respect Neelix anymore. He is clearly lying to her and not telling even part of the truth and she caught him in it. At this point, he could have just owned up to it; he could have tried to make it right, but he didn’t. He just stuck to his talking points and tried to distract her.
This absolutely happens to us too. We get part of the story, not the whole story, or, worse, an entirely made-up story. Neelix…you and your team sit in an Ivory Tower and learn a thing. You have to decide if you’re going to share that thing and if you do how are you going to share it. What are the talking points? How do we remain consistent in responding to questions around this thing? Now the way Neelix did this was to decide, on his own, in his little, Ivory Tower how to share the info about Samantha with Naomi; that is, not to share it at all. And we saw how that went. Blew up in his face. But had he treated her like the person she is. Like a smart person that knows what’s up, he could have had a frank conversation with her right away. Would she have been upset? Absolutely! But she was anyway! And she was rightfully upset with Neelix for making a bad call and sticking to it. Had he shared the news she could have been upset about the thing that mattered: her Mom. And then she could have been supported by Harry Kim and the Doctor and Janeway and everyone else that makes up her team and community.
This reminds of me a really minor thing that happened a few years ago. This didn’t happen where I worked but in a friend’s office, but it’s a great example of how deciding how to talk about a thing in an Ivory Tower and then sticking to it, even after you’re called out on it, can take a minor thing and make it huge.
This office does some data thing; I honestly don’t know what they do. But they are very metrics driven and they capture them in real time. The team has a healthy sense of competition, and it helps drive their numbers up. They had been using these ceiling mounted projectors to display the numbers on a wall that a little over half of the team could see.
Management decided this was too expensive to continue. The bulbs were burning out all the time and they cost a few hundred bucks apiece to replace. They had these things on for like 15 hours a day and they’re hardly rated for that. For the same price as two sets of bulb replacements they were able to buy like 48” TV screens to mount to the walls instead. Easy math, right? Super quick ROI and lower costs moving forward. So, what could possibly go wrong?
Ok, so going back to what makes an Ivory Tower decision, in this story, no one has spoken to anyone that actually does the work. No one that actually uses what these projectors pop up. This was a group of managers that sat in a room and made a call.
Some added context here is that revenue was down for this organization at the time. Leadership was talking about that all the time and everyone saw emails about it a bunch.
So that was where the first big blow up came from. There was no communication to the team. They came in on a Monday and there are these fancy looking TVs mounted where the projector screens were. People start asking talking, ramping each other up and getting more and more upset. They go their managers who don’t really know what to say. People are way mad and their simple answer of saving money just isn’t cutting the mustard. The managers retreat to their Ivory Tower and start strategizing. They decide that once people understand the cost savings, they’ll be totally on board. So they pull everyone together and share just that. Hey, everybody, this is cool! We’re gonna save so much money now!
Well, that was a dud. Remember those revenue issues. Yeah, people had to miss a raise because of them. So that’s immediately where they go. If we’re saving so much money, are we getting our raises? Will they be retroactive? I mean, the questions just started flying and none of the managers were prepared for them. Beaten and utterly defeated, the managers retreated to the once place they felt safe. Their Ivory Tower.
Now there’s a whole group of people that feel like they were just handed a bill of goods and they are ready to revolt. But, they slowly get back to work because that’s what our society trains us to do. They stay mad as time goes on, but then they start thinking about the TVs in a different way. It’s like less than a week since the big announcement; let’s say it’s Wednesday. One, brave soul enters the Ivory Tower. They politely ask why, if they were replacing the projectors, didn’t they spread the TV screens out more so more of the team could see them. Remember that I said that just about half of the team could see where they were currently set up. A total missed opportunity.
Well, the end of the story isn’t all that great. Well, on one hand it is. Most of the people that were super mad have since gotten new jobs and my buddy was able to get the TV screens moved so people could actually see them. But, had things gone just a little bit differently, this could have been such a different experience.
If we rewind, and then use my super-magic device that lets me rewrite Star Trek episodes like Enterprise’s The Catwalk, this is what it would have looked like. Manager 1 says the projector bulbs are too expensive. Manager 2 proposes buying TVs and presents the ROI. The Managers then meet with the team, because remember, start with the team, and share the problem and what they learned about the TVs. Then the team is excited about the cool idea. They work through the raises question together and, that meek team member that dared cross into the Ivory Tower gets to propose putting the TVs up in strategic positions. Boom! Literally everyone wins. Instead, they got a solid couple of years of active disengagement from the team.
So, what do you do about this? I could really overcomplicate things and dive into those times when you are handed a piece of politically sensitive information, or your superior explicitly tells you to not share a piece of possibly devastating, or even awesome news. But the reality is, this comes down to two very simple things. Trust and Respect. Well, yeah, but for this, we’re going with trust and respect.
Trust your team. Respect them. Know that they know more than you know they know. Whew…that was something. But, seriously. Include your team in your decision making. That all but guarantees you’ll end up with a better, more effective solution. And when it’s just news you have to share – trust your team. Share what you are able and when you can’t, don’t double-down on it! A tool I love to use is being straight up honest. You’re right, there’s more to this but I am not able to share that right now. I lean on the trust we have. You know me, right? You understand that if I could share more I would, right? But I can’t. And the cool thing is, when you are honest like that, people will usually respect you for it. But if you pull a Neelix, and just keep on acting like everything’s cool and you just don’t know what’s up, it will bite you and it will not be pleasant.
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Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
Oh, we’re staying in Voyager! Heading back to the 3rd season, it’s the 17th episode, Unity. This episode came out just a few months after the Star Trek: First Contact film and is the first appearance of the Borg in Voyager. They go on to be a massive part of Voyager’s story and, it all starts here. I’m also thinking, if I remember this episode correctly, that there might be some ties between it and the Picard series. Well, we’ll find out, right here next time.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!