When asked to name one or more good leaders, many of us would think of current or past world statesmen, people who effectively led movements near and dear to our hearts, or if you are lucky, a present or past work colleague who successfully led your organization during tough times or to new heights. But how many of us would initially think of a fictional character as a standout role model of good leadership? This is an interesting question, in part because fictional characters -- necessarily being less "three-dimensional" than real people -- can serve very well as role models. Whether in books, movies, or elsewhere, they are combinations of abstracted character traits from real people, provided to us via limited descriptions and limited dialogue and actions. Similarly, when thinking of good leadership role models (or any role models), you are focusing on abstracting the traits that make a good leader.
I've actually thought about this several times over the years, and there has always been one fictional character that I would eventually come to as my top role model for leadership. I felt rather validated when I recently learned that I'm not alone: Gina Eckert, blogging for the esteemed Center for Creative Leadership, seems to agree with me when she wrote her post "Make It So: How a Frenchman Could Become an American Leadership Idol."
The character that Gina and I are talking about is of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series and movies. The other top leaders of the various Star Trek series also have strong, though varying, leadership qualities: Captain James T. Kirk, Commander Benjamin Sisko, Captain Kathryn Janeway, and Captain Jonathan Archer. But for me and I suspect many others, Picard is the one who is the most relevant role model for leadership in organizations today. As Eckert describes him:
Picard is an excellent information gatherer and decision maker…He rarely makes real consensus decisions, but he gathers opinions from each team member before reaching an integrated conclusion, thereby giving his team the feeling of being highly involved. …Picard's appeal partly consists of his refusal to be portrayed as a hero. Picard's humility and modesty, almost shyness sometimes, make him more a member of a winning team than a solitary champion. After any threat that he and/or the Enterprise have successfully averted, he emphasizes that he is not an independent individual, able to achieve, perform, or move mountains (or rather, stars) based on his own volition. He very much defines himself as being integrated into the democratic structure of Starfleet that allows every voice to be heard, even junior ranks. …He is not so much an inspirational, visionary leader than rather a discreet operator who projects his strengths through silence. A little quirky -- but that only makes him more lovable.
And how is it that Picard is so respected as a leader even now, 20 years after his "invention?" I think mainly because his leadership style fits with the problems we're currently facing. From Picard, we can learn how to lead sustainably -- building and maintaining a high-performing team, developing others yet also retaining top talent; acknowledging people (and other species) in their entirety and caring for their emotional and physical well-being as much as, if not more than, their work output. Making moral judgments and defending them against organizational protocol, if necessary.
Admittedly, being such a leader is easier in an ideal organization like Starfleet, and in the reality of our lives we face more difficulties than Picard might --but he would argue that that should not discourage us to try and strive for continuous improvement.
I couldn't have said it better myself!
For the Star Trek fans among you, which of its characters is your favorite leadership role model, and why? And beyond the realm of Star Trek, do you have any other fictional characters that you consider to be top leadership role models?