What Star Trek Can Teach Us about DEI and Leadership
September 8, 1966. The first episode of Star Trek: The Original Series aired to millions of people.
In the escalation of the Vietnam War, as well as racial tensions during the Civil Rights movement, no one knew how impactful this TV series would be. While it thrived on-screen initially, Star Trek was ultimately cancelled after three seasons, leading some to deem the show both a commercial and critical failure.
A few years into its syndication, however, Star Trek gained massive popularity, as the Star Trek fan base grew exponentially and the public realized how relevant the show’s recurring themes were during a time of great turmoil and crisis in leadership.
Did you know that Star Trek was the first TV series to showcase an interracial kiss in TV history? It also deliberately challenged racial and gender diversity with leading non-white characters like Nyota Uhura and Hikaru Sulu. Most importantly, Star Trek created a united universe where “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” could exist – a universe where the totality of people’s race, gender, and other identities was celebrated, respected, and included in creating an equitable and just world for all.
As a Trekkie myself, I believe there are six DEI lessons that leaders can glean from the show that are especially relevant today:
1. Question the Status Quo
In Star Trek, Captain Kirk knew that for his missions to have the greatest impact, he had to directly defy what his peers and superiors expected of him as a leader. In a time when DEI is at the forefront of corporate conversations (or at least, when it should be), leaders need to question the status quo in which their company culture has historically operated. What systematic and cultural practices have been normalized that might hinder an employee from reaching their full potential, or the company from reaching its own?
2. Embrace Challenge
One of Captain Kirk’s recurring foes in Star Trek was the Romulans, a highly intelligent, war-like society that destroyed its enemies ruthlessly. In many episodes, the Captain could have chosen the easier option, such as waiting for someone else to solve the problem or giving into Romulan demands. Instead, the Captain always chose to act, realizing that his action would ultimately motivate his crew to do the same in the face of fear.
Likewise, when we are faced with the “Romulans” of life, choose to embrace - rather than avoid or give into - the challenge. To pretend that the challenge does not exist or ignore it until things “go back to normal” is, in actuality, a form of surrender.
3. Listening is Leading
When faced with crises, Captain Kirk always relied on the advice and insight of his crew. Instead of talking and debating, Kirk made it a deliberate practice to listen to everyone – from his second-in command Spock to behind-the scenes engineers.
Like Kirk, leaders today must realize that active listening is a form of leadership, and that when your team members know they are heard – regardless of their role, title, or responsibility in the company – that is when trust can be forged and maintained. Sometimes, it pays to not talk.
4. Diversity is Necessary
“The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity, and the way our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”
Perhaps one of my favorite Star Trek quotes, this quote signals a very fundamental truth about human beings: our complexity and diversity are infinite. What leader would not want to harness the infinite capabilities of everyone in an organization?
Unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination deny that having people from all walks of life, backgrounds, and capabilities at the table is a necessity in today’s world – even when data clearly shows how diversity helps boost financial performance and leads to higher rates of innovation.
5. People First
“A captain is nothing without his crew,” Captain Kirk often noted in the face of crisis. As a leader, Captain Kirk made every decision with his people not just in mind, but first – always. He recognized that while he had prestige and power, the Enterprise could not successfully carry out its directives if its crew was not supported with the proper resources.
When it comes to DEI, members of your team will need a break – plain and simple – from everything that is going on right now. Giving team members time to rest and reconnect shows employees that you recognize the complexity of their lived experiences and that their well-being is a priority within your organization.
6. Go Above and Beyond
The Enterprise was considered the finest starship in the Federation fleet. Why? Because the Captain and crew went above and beyond what they were directed to do.
Society has established expectations for how leaders should be approaching DEI during this time. But if people are truly committed to creating spaces where all their team members can bring their full selves to work, leaders will go above and beyond basic DEI training or monthly workshops. To continue forging progress, leaders need to intentionally reinforce inclusive cultures from the top-down and consistently refine policies as their organizations evolve with the times.
Star Trek: The Original Series continues to teach us the importance of diversity and how to harness its power in reaching our greatest potential - both individually and collectively.
For more insightful resources on leadership and DEI, visit our Workplace Diversity, Anti-Racism and Allyship Resource Center. To make our bite-sized brilliance a regular part of your workday, subscribe to our monthly newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.
In the meantime, live long and prosper!