There's coffee in that nebula; and a lesson about relationships.
In this episode, Jeff Akin breaks down the characters in The Cloud (Star Trek: Voyager) and their relationships, the difference between Jean-Luc Picard’s leadership to Kathryn Janeway, and most importantly, Janeway's take on leading and connecting with her team. As Jeff reviews this episode of Voyager, look closely at how Janeway reflects excellent examples of professionalism, trust, and balanced relationships as her team's captain. Find out answers to questions like, how can leaders develop meaningful solid relationships without crossing boundaries? How do you function and appear to get things done? And why is perception often reality?
Listen to the episode and join Jeff as he talks about what leaders can learn from Captain Janeway and more.
Strong Relationship and Professional Distance
Like the possible effects that could arise from Janeway's relationship with her crew, many leaders also worry about how they can genuinely connect with their people while maintaining a professional understanding of boundaries. For this, the term professional distance was coined and discussed by Dr. Ana Corbo Crehan of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. She defines the whole concept as the set understanding of a leader's ability to fulfill a professional obligation and be seen to do so in an impartial and non-exploitive manner.
For Jeff, failing to keep a professional distance can impact treatment, create impressions, and cause allegations –something he's proven and experienced himself. Being too close and casual to team members, while it has its advantages, may affect your decision-making as a leader to some far extent. If you get too close to someone, someone else may worry about favoritism. If you interact too coldly, this may create a disconnect within the workforce. Establishing a connection with your team is essential to nourish closeness. Doing so with propriety is what professional distance promotes. If you're human enough to the people you lead, you can be a friend to them without losing the awareness that you're still their leader with professional distance.
Listen more about Janeway's leadership and professional distances in the Starfleet Leadership Academy Podcast!
About Starfleet Leadership Academy:
Star Trek is full of great examples of leadership. Jeff Akin, a leader with over 20 years of executive management experience in both the public and private sectors, breaks down each episode of Star Trek, from The Original Series to Discovery and beyond, pointing out examples of great leadership, management, lean/six-sigma, communication and more.
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Welcome! And thank you for joining us as we dive into the 6th episode of the 1st season of Voyager, The Cloud
We start off with Janeway’s personal log. She’s describing what so many leaders experience at some point - how do you develop strong, meaningful relationships with your staff or teams, but still maintain a professional distance. “At the academy…” Dr. Anna Corbo Crehan from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne defines professional distance as the space a professional must keep between their professional relationship with another and any other relationship they have with that person. That seems to make sense, but is also pretty ambiguous. How much space? Should it be all business, all the time? She doesn’t define it any more than that as yo should be able to use your judgement. She does provide meaningful context, though: the leader should be able to fulfill their professional obligations and BE SEEN TO DO SO, in an impartial and non-exploitive manner. What’s key here is that she emphasizes not only the function of getting things done, but also the appearance.
So, why is the way people see us fulfilling our obligations important? Well, perception is reality, or 9/10’s of the law, or something like that. There’s real risk to getting too personal with your teams. Allegations of favoritism can have impacts on your job, and can lead to further allegations such as discrimination or even harassment. Beyond that, relationships that are too close and personal for the professional space can negatively impact your decision making. It can lead to a less inclusive work culture because there will people that are “in,” - the ones you like - and those that are”out.” To the earlier point, even if you manage these relationships well and are aware of the impacts to your judgement and decision making, the relationships can lead to perceptions can lead to allegations that can result in real impacts to you and your teams.
Not nearly as devastating as claims of discrimination, I had an experience many years ago that demonstrated the power of perception when it comes to relationships at work. I had just started managing a program within a very large organization. There were about 100 people working in the program. I didn’t know until I started there, but one of the employees was my nephew’s grandmother. No marriage in this relationship, so she and I weren’t related, but we had my nephews in common. I’m pretty social and I believe in connecting with the people I work with, so I would visit with staff during work (there’s an entirely separate topic in there about managers basically just interrupting real work, but we’ll save that for another episode). I would talk with everyone about their families or their dogs, you know, whatever they were excited to talk about, or would at least tolerate me interrupting them to talk about. She and I would tend to talk about my nephews. At the time they were hovering around like the 7 or 8-year old mark, so there was a lot of fun stuff to talk about.
One day, I get a call from HR. You know, that phone call you always look forward to! A team member had complained to them about the personal relationship I had and how I was showing favoritism towards my nephew’s grandmother. I was shocked to hear this. I was very careful about my relationship with this person. In fact, there was even another manager in between us so she didn’t report directly to me; I couldn’t imagine having done anything wrong. There’s a quote, somewhere out there (and I’d love of someone could remind me who said it, @jefftakin on the social media), that says, “In every pile of manure there’s a diamond. The question is, how much shit do you want to dig through to find it.” Basically, there is always good in the bad, you just have to work to find it. In this case, I wanted to find it. The diamond was some tough feedback. Regardless of how I behaved, there was a perception that this person received special treatment due to our personal relationship. So, outside to work, she and I spoke and agreed to leave our personal relationship out of the office. I was fortunate in that the person that made the complaint came to me to address the situation personally, which I appreciate to this day. That conversation really helped me understand the impact, the amplified impact, really, of my relationships and interactions with people at work.
I think, that even with Dr. Crehan’s take on professional distance, there is room for situational adjustments. Not every relationship with every person in every workplace is going to be the same. As we review more of the Next Generation, we will see Picard follow exactly what Janeway referenced in her quote about the Academy. But he is in a very different situation that Janeway is. Voyager is alone. There is no Starfleet Command, there are no internship transfers happening. There are less than 150 people on the ship, and that’s pretty much how it’s going be.
So, does that change the situation? Does that mean Janeway should let her defenses down and be all buddy-buddy with the crew? Well, that is exactly the question she’s asking herself. They’ve been in the Delta Quadrant for a few weeks now and life is settling into normal, until the next normal comes along. But she is actively examining her leadership style and approach to meet the needs of her team in the situation. Multi-dimensional leadership; that’s what it’s all about! Slight spoiler alert, she kind of - sort of answers the question at the end of the episode, so more to come!
After all of that she says, “maybe they need me to be larger than life.” This is such a strong, powerful and profound statement. I mean, like it or not, there is often a sort of celebrity associated with being a leader. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, because I think other episodes of Star Trek convey this better, but just consider this. Have you ever been on an email thread where people that should be hearing what you have to say just don’t seem to be? I generally think of email threads with our IT department on this one…. Eventually, you just need things to move forward so you CC your manager, or an executive that is connected to the project and then, suddenly, the thing you needed to happen just happens? Weird, right? More on that concept in the future, and a bit more in this episode. The reality is, though, a leader’s position, but also even their name, carries weight with it. People stop and notice when you are there. I’ve talked in past episodes about gemba walks; the part I haven’t brought up is the part where the people that do the work every day feel more connected to their work, and often, more important, just because you were there, actively observing them work and engaging with them. Leaders matter, and when they are present, people feel it.
Wow! We’re just 73 seconds into the Voyager episode at this point!!
We see this in action as Janeway comes onto the mess deck and checks in with Harry and Tom. We learn how Neelix has adapted to the kitchen “..interesting times…” She has a quick joke with them and then heads off on her own. Kim regrets not inviting her to join them. Paris says ensigns don’t invite captains to sit down and that captains don’t want courtesy, they want respect. Harry asks who she’s supposed to talk to and hang out with. Kind of an agree to disagree between the two.
We learn more about Janeway’s relationship with coffee as Neelix answers the age old question: what happened to the drapes at The Max near Bayside High…very questionable costuming idea here…
Janeway gets called to the bridge as they’ve discovered a nebula. Lots of omicron particles here that can replenish their anti-matter reserves. You see, to conserve energy, Neelix has been cooking for them, with…varying levels of success. She just missed out on coffee because there wasn’t any in the galley in she didn’t want to spend her replicator ration on it. So, extra energy reserves means “there’s coffee in that nebula.”
Janeway and Chakotay discuss the morale of the crew. It’s…well, not good. Janeway wishes there was a counselor on board, but the mission that sent them out here was supposed to be quick (3 hour tour) and they didn’t have one. Chakotay shares a tradition he follows that offers him an animal guide that counsels them through life. Much like Carl Jung’s “Active Imagination” theory, but Native Americans had been doing it for centuries before that. He offers to teach her how to contact her animal guide and she agrees.
They head into the nebula to find the omicron particles. Tuvok and Kim have a fun back-and-forth that, at the end of it, Kim gets the better of. We see the bridge crew and engineering work very smoothly together to problem solve their way through the nebula. It’s great how Janeway just lets them do their things. She asks questions and guides the discussion, but trusts her crew to do their jobs. Torres has a theory on progressing and Janeway immediately executes. A great demonstration of trusting your staff to do what they are trained to do.
We cut to Kes and Neelix basically explaining the entire premise of this series. Neelix is over the top mad that Janeway keeps putting the crew in danger to explore and learn new things while Kes defends the spirit of the crew.
The flight through the nebula gets dangerous with particles draining their energy reserves; the exact opposite of what they went in there to do. They end up using phasers and then a photon torpedo to cut through the particles and escape the nebula. They end up losing 11% of their energy reserves in the process. Janeway asks for a sample of the particles so that Torres can analyze them and see what happened to them.
Classic sequence is up next as Tom abducts Harry and takes him to the holodeck. We find out Harry wears a sleeping mask and that he remembers being in his mother’s room. Tom then introduces Harry to Chez Sandrine. A program he built of a pool hall in France where he spent much of his time at the Academy. A few episodes ago, they conveniently established that the holodeck runs off different power than the rest of the ship and the replicators, so they can run without negatively impacting operations. From a production standpoint, this allows them to use the holodeck as a plot device. In universe, it gives new settings for stories and character building. Tom and Harry spend time bonding here. Fun stuff. One of my favorite Star Trek tropes happens here. They’re just hanging out, having fun. A few minutes ago, Harry was asleep. But, you know what they decide to wear? Their uniforms! They must be really comfortable!
While they play, Torres gets to work. She takes the samples of the particles to the Doctor and they work together to figure it out. The Doctor starts speculating what he could do if he were able to reprogram himself. He also shares Neelix’s feelings about exploring everything instead of just heading home.
We cut to Chakotay and Janeway. He’s going to help her meet her animal guide. It has been well documented that the production and writing teams on Voyager were given a lot of incorrect, and ultimately hurtful information about Indigenous culture by the consultant they had hired, who claimed to be indigenous but was actually eastern european. So, instead of talking about what they go through here, I’ll talk about what is behind the gesture. Chakotay is sharing something deeply personal with Janeway, giving something of his authentic self. This is a generous moment where the two people on the ship that must maintain some separation from everyone else, and each other, to a point, are able to come closer together through the sharing and acceptance of something deeply personal from one to another.
Torres interrupts to share the findings she and the Doctor came to. Turns out the nebula isn’t a nebula, but a massive lifeform that Voyager likely seriously damaged when they used weapons to escape it. The Doctor has many thoughts on this, but does not have the social graces to know when and how to share those thoughts, so Janeway mutes him. Just mutes him. At this point in the series, she still sees the Doctor as a tool, as part of the ship. We are beginning to connect with him as a character with a personality but she is not. Is this a criticism of her leadership? No, no, I don’t think so. I mean, do you say please and thank you to Siri all the time? (I do…but I’ve seen Battlestar Galactica and I’m going to try and stay on the cool guy list when Skynet goes active. Yes, I know what I did there.) Either way, it’s something to consider in her style. She sees a tool as a tool and treats it as such. I’m sure we’ll explore this more in future Voyager episodes.
Anyway, they decide they need to go and help this lifeform heal from the damage they caused. The Doctor asks questions that allows Torres to determine the best method to heal it; he already knows the answer but knows that she does as well. He uses this opportunity to not only help her realize she knows it, but also highlights her skill and knowledge in front of her superior officers. Smooth move by the Doctor here.
Janeway begins handing out assignments. What’s notable here is how she matches crew with the tasks - based on their strengths.
More of Neelix being upset about how Voyager conducts its business. He heads straight into Janeway’s office to air his grievances. She shuts him right down. “dismissed…”
In hindsight, these bits with Neelix are important. As a viewer back in the 90’s, you’d likely be asking a lot of the same questions he is. If it’s important to get back to the Alpha Quadrant, why don’t they just set course and fly? This was a good opportunity for fans to be acknowledged but also for Voyager to establish what it’s going to be about. They’re going to head home but they will return home knowing much more about the Delta Quadrant.
Things don’t go smoothly for them as they attempt to heal the nebula lifeform. It reacts badly as they near the injury site. Janeway doesn’t know how to proceed so she asks for suggestions. They come up with a plan that will allow them to drift along to the site.
Neelix shows up on the bridge with hour ’derves…..funny to see; they are at red alert! Neelix has appointed himself as morale officer. Given the discussion Janeway and Chakotay had earlier in the episode, this could be a good thing. Of course, it’s Neelix, so…we’ll see.
Torres and the Doctor come up with a new plan to heal the injury. They’ll basically stitch it up and it’ll be all good. The crew have some questions about it so Janeway grabs an opportunity to both connect and teach. Tom mentions he has always had a dog. Janeway also has a Dog and uses their shared experience to draw an analogy “..we had a diversion.” This is a great approach to get someone on board with a plan. Find a common point of reference you’ll both understand and paint an analogy with it. By describing the situation in more familiar and comfortable terms, it’ll make more sense. Happens very quickly here, but she’s able to get him on board and help him successfully execute the plan.
They’re successful, even though total energy loss is at 20%. So, they’re headed 14 light years off course to a planet that they can mine for a refill. In the turbo lift, Harry invites Janeway to Sandrine’s and she accepts. The crew snap to attention and she waves them off. She jokes with people and is personable. Torres is awesome here, and if you know what happens with her and Paris in the future, this line is even cooler “he’s a pig…” Janeway gets a pool cue, plays a little dumb, and then runs the table! A far cry from Picard not playing poker with his team, but a very different situation. Episode ends as she smoothly sinks the 8 ball.
What a fun episode! The living nebula story is interesting, good sci fi stuff, but also kind of whatever. I like that it served as a vehicle to acknowledge questions about how the journey would go and what Voyager would be doing in the Delta Quadrant. Torres and the Doctor really got to shine in this too. Earlier in this season, there was controversy as to whether or not Torres could function as the chief engineer or not. At this point, there really is no question; she’s more than up to the job.
The rest of the episode did a lot to build out the characters and, more importantly, their relationships. Harry and Tom are one of the more rewarding relationships in Star Trek and they do a lot to build on it here. We get more with Janeway and Chakotay too, which is great! They’ll go on to use Sandrine’s for a few seasons. They establish some fun characters in this episode like Gaunt Gary, the gigolo and Sandrine herself.
The animal guide stuff wasn’t great, but it wasn’t that bad either. In this case it did a lot to build the bond between Janeway and Chakotay. It also demonstrated how open Janeway is to embracing the cultures of others. She eagerly dove in and was genuinely excited to learn.
A lot of what was built, relationship wise, in this episode, will go on through the entire series. A fun episode of Voyager!
Oops, wrong universes there! “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” King Richard the 4th in Henry the 4th Part 2. Fitting to use a Shakespeare quote to sum up most of the lessons in a Star TREK episode.
Leadership is hard. Leadership can be lonely. We are often called upon to make decisions that impact people’s lives. Even when you have a team supporting you, the decision, and the carrying out of that decision often lands on you. Weighs on you. That can be tough.
This episode begins with an internal dialogue that every leader faces at some point: Am I behaving and carrying myself in a right manner? Are my relationships appropriate? Do they need me to be one of them, or do they need something to look up to?
The leadership lesson here isn’t simple, and it isn’t clear. The only piece of it that is clear is the need for situational awareness and the ability know when a situation has changed. Let’s play armchair biographer with Janeway here for a second.
There is a reality out there where Voyager’s mission to the Badlands to find Chakotay’s Maquis ship was successful. They found them, arrested them and flew back to Deep Space 9. From there, as captain of a science vessel, she would have taken the crew out to chart gaseous anomalies, sample nebula and…well, kind of all the things she does anyway on their way home in the Delta Quadrant! The difference is, though, they’d head back to a starbase between missions. People would have a home away from Voyager; personal lives, even families. She could have, and likely would have, followed the Jean-Luc Picard model of being a captain that is taught at the Academy. “Be the captain, not their friend.” Or, as I will often counsel managers and leaders that I work with: “Be friendLY, not friends.”
Now, after a few weeks in the Delta Quadrant, Janeway is assessing her role as Captain. She’s applying that situational awareness and we’re lucky enough to go along for the ride. What we see at Chez Sandrine, at the end of the episode demonstrates the situation is different. “Or the Alpha Quadrant, for that matter. She’s going to be more friendly with the crew. She will be more personable. As the series progresses, we see that she still maintains a professional distance, but not nearly as much as a Picard did, or as much as she likely would have had they not been stranded in the Delta Quadrant. She is doing what I said earlier: being friendLY.
You can apply this situational awareness in your life as well. I know that I changed my professional distancing in earqly 2020 when COVID-19 prompted stay-at-home orders; and we all changed our physical distancing. I suddenly had a distributed workforce that were working from home or other locations. We lost in-person contact with each other. I’m generally pretty open about my life, but I maintain professional decorum and don’t share a whole lot about my personal life at work. Using video conferencing tools we connected on a regular basis to maintain connections with each other and to our work. In that I shared more of my personal life than I would have otherwise. This was important, though. It was important to my teams because seeing me worry and have fear about the pandemic made them feel it was ok for them to have those feelings as well. Had I insisted on “business as usual” but not from the office, staff would have felt more alone and disconnected from their work. By essentially humanizing myself, I made it ok for everyone else to be human. This led to great productivity and an engaged workforce.
As the reality of a distributed workforce for the long-term has become more apparent, I am reestablishing some professional distance. In this next normal, it will still be more personal than it was when we were all in the office, but a little less personal than when we were in a reactionary crisis mode. Utilizing situational awareness enables you to gauge where you should be.
Sprinkled through the rest of the episode are some great moments. In all of the interactions with the nebula, there is fast-paced, critical problem solving going on. She actively brings all the members of the team together to lean on their expertise. She guides their discussions by asking questions and confirming when a decision has been made so they can continue on.
That’s a theme we’ve seen in a few episodes so far. In Where No Man Has Gone Before, we talked about how Kirk didn’t analyze every option to death. Like him, Janeway acknowledges when a decision is made and moves forward. I can almost imagine the second in a boxing match yelling “stick and move!” But instead yelling “decide and move, decide and move!”
I also love the trust she shows in her crew. At one point, B’Elanna has thoughts on how to move the ship through the nebula. There is no discussion, so weighing of options. She trusts Torres’ assessment and immediately does it. This is especially remarkable given that just a few weeks ago, she campaigned against Torres getting the Chief Engineer position. This is a testament to B’Elanna’s skills and abilities, but also Janeway’s capacity for trust.
Thank you to everyone that has reached out! I love getting feedback from you. Let me know what I missed or flat out got wrong! Was there something especially poignant for you in this? Please let me know!
I’m on all the social media @jefftakin Jeff, t as in tympani, a k i n. If you have enjoyed the Starfleet Leadership Academy, please share it with a friend or someone you think could benefit from it.
What are we going to watch next time….
Face of the Enemy - season 6 episode 14 of the Next Generation. A chance to see Deanna Troi shine!! Should be a good one!
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!