What Star Trek and Failure Can Teach Us About Leadership

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Copyright 2007 Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios Inc.

How do you respond to a no-win situation?

As any Star Trek nerd will tell you, The Kobayashi Maru was a simulation used by Starfleet to train its future leaders how to deal with a no-win situation.  The scenario begins when the Starship Enterprise receives a distress signal from a civilian ship called the Kobayashi Maru, which is stranded in Klingon territory. The Starfleet cadet leading the crew must decide whether to attempt a rescue of the helpless ship and risk infuriating the Klingons or abandon, and thereby doom, the Kobayashi Maru. Unfortunately for the cadets, Spock has programmed the simulation so that no matter which decision the captain-in-training makes, it results in the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perishing.


When Captain Kirk went through the simulation as a cadet, however, he reprogramed the simulator in order to save the stranded ship while still protecting the lives of his own crew. Spock reprimands Kirk for cheating, but Kirk retorts that he simply “found a solution that redefined the problem.” Spock disagrees, insisting that the point was for future Starfleet leaders to face certain failure and thereby test their true character.


Facing Failure

For me, this story highlights the fact that the specter of failure is terrifying for leader. Most of us, like Captain Kirk, try desperately to find ways to eliminate the necessity of failure in our organizations.

But the truth is that no-win scenarios are inevitable for any leader. The question is not how to avoid failure, but how to respond with ingenuity even when failure seems certain. 

De-stigmatizing failure can be an important first step toward achieving more courageous, more creative leadership.

Failure Lab, a group of West Michigan professionals, seeks to “eliminate the fear of failure and encourage intelligent risk taking” by inviting people from the area to talk about their experience of failure. I would encourage you to visit the website at: http://www.failure-lab.com/


What do you think?

  • How have you responded to a no-win scenario?

  • When was the last time you admitted to a failure?

  • What have you learned from your failures?

  • How might a greater openness to failure improve your organization?

Lose Dice” courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One comment
  1. Tara Howe July 31, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Valid points, BUT the key to “failing successfully” is to learn from your mistakes and “try, try again”. One of my favorite quotes by Zig Ziglar is “If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost”.

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