Embracing the Wisdom of Captain Kirk

As Trekkie fans eagerly await the release of Star Trek Into Darkness on May 16, we revisit an article from last year that shared some leadership lessons from the mighty James T. Kirk. Author Ray Barishansky is a featured speaker at EMS World Expo, September 8–12 in Las Vegas, NV. Click here for more information.

Although I do not regularly peruse Forbes Magazine, a recent article title in that normally staid publication caught my eye: “Five Leadership Lessons From James T. Kirk.” While I’m not really a Trekkie, I began to think, in reading this article, that it contained some surprising nuggets of use for EMS leaders of all levels.

Education costs money…but then, so does ignorance.

The first lesson mentioned is to never stop learning, and although the Forbes article focuses on Kirk’s reputation at the Starfleet Academy as a “walking stack of books,” I read this as a battle cry for EMS. We need to take every opportunity to learn—and take advantage of both EMS and non-EMS sources. Opportunities to expand your knowledge base and perspective are all around; you just need to look for them and pay attention to the lessons they teach. Your EMS agency is constantly evolving and experiencing challenges. You need to continue to evolve to handle those challenges, or you will quickly find yourself obsolete.

Homogenizing is only good for milk.

The article continues with advice to “have advisors with different world views,” or, as I would say, resist the urge to surround yourself with yes-men. EMS leaders need to know that what’s important is having people around them who will give honest, educated and experienced opinions when asked—not just want you want to hear. Though it may seem easier to run an organization when everyone agrees, that is not reality. Having earnest differences in opinion isn’t a bad thing—mature adults can and do disagree, with positive results.

One thing I’ve always tried to stress to the teams I’ve worked with is if you don’t think a certain initiative, project or piece of equipment will work, explain that opinion to the team, but also provide an alternative solution you think will work, and tell us why. This approach is much more constructive than just disagreeing, and it bonds the team as you explore possibilities. Kirk had frequent disagreements with Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy, who often recommended different courses of action and brought different types of arguments to bear. Kirk had the confidence to surround himself with smart people; all good EMS leaders should do the same.

Lead, follow or get out of the way.

“Be part of the away team” is the next leadership lesson. Kirk was a hands-on leader, beaming down with his crew as they explored interesting and dangerous situations. When it comes to uncharted or challenging circumstances, EMS leaders need to do the same. That could mean championing new technologies in the clinical setting or simply supporting crews to the public and politicians in your community. Leadership isn’t for the faint of heart. To be effective in EMS, you need to get out from behind the desk, get out of the office and take a call or two with your crews. You don’t need to do this daily, but you need to do it.

Life is uncertain; eat dessert first.

“Play poker, not chess” is the next leadership lesson, and although somewhat strange sounding, it speaks to an interesting issue in leadership. The game of chess is often taken too seriously as a metaphor for leadership strategy. Chess, while definitely a thinking person’s game, is defined by rules that can be mathematically determined. It’s ultimately a game of boxes and limitations. A far better analogy to strategy is poker. Life is a game of likelihoods, not defined certainties. Creativity strikes when you consider the probabilities, not when you ponder the rules.

When all else fails, reboot.

The concluding lesson is to “blow up the Enterprise.” This deals with Kirk’s difficult decision to blow up his own ship. The deeper lesson for EMS leaders is to be ready and able to sacrifice the sacred cow if necessary to solve a vital problem. Sometimes it takes a willingness to rethink all you do in order to really see your EMS agency and figure out what will really change a negative situation. Maybe what is required is to reconfigure the operation to meet a new mission.

It is always interesting to me to read about how leadership is viewed and practiced in various disciplines and then attempt to apply those lessons and best practices to EMS. As recounted in the many Star Trek adventures over the years, James Kirk embodied several leadership lessons useful to EMS. Collectively, managers and administrators need to keep exploring and learning. They need to ensure creativity and innovation are encouraged and the voices of people with different opinions are heard. Revisiting street-level operations is necessary to understanding crews’ needs, appreciating their challenges and earning their trust and loyalty. By following these lessons, we can lead our EMS agencies into places where no one has gone before.

Raphael M. Barishansky, MPH, is chief of public health emergency preparedness for Prince George’s County (MD) Health Department. An editorial advisory board member and frequent contributor for EMS World, he can be reached at rbarishansky@gmail.com.

 

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