James T. Kirk: Great Leader of Enterprise or Empty Vessel?

OK. Clearly the the title is a bad pun. Hope you and Trekkies everywhere can forgive me. But the point I want to make is a serious one. What makes a great leader?

I started thinking about this when a friend asked me for some names of iconic leaders throughout history. Half-kidding, I offered the name James T. Kirk. My friend, who in her defense is not a Star Trek fan, asked whether Captain Kirk was seen as a good guy or just plain “dumb.”

Now maybe I should take a moment to explain that I am indeed a Star Trek fan – original show, spin-offs, and films. While I’m no Trekkie and could never decipher even the most basic Klingon phrase without an official Klingon translator, the mere thought of Kirk being called “dumb” made my non-Vulcan blood boil.

So Was James T. Kirk a Great Leader?

In my mind…without a doubt. And the last Star Trek film captured the essence of why I say this and what makes him – or anyone – a good leader. The fun part was, we got to see his leadership style in contrast to the cool logical half-Vulcan Mr. Spock. (I’ve worked for versions of Spock more than once, only the versions seemed to lack his half-human side.) And despite all his obvious flaws, especially in his younger years, where the film focuses – he was after all the youngest Starfleet captain ever when he took charge of the Enterprise – Captain Kirk is indeed the embodiment of a true leader.

So what makes James T. Kirk a great leader? What makes anyone a great leader? For me the answer goes beyond linear representations of leadership skills – the kind Spock would excel at. True leaders have something more – an indefinable, almost-magical leadership quality that, when taken as a whole, turns out to be greater than the individual parts.

My Favorite Leadership Qualities

  • A great leader has vision and can communicate that vision to others
  • A great leader inspires others – not just mere admiration, but a step beyond
  • A great leader cares about his team – not just what they can do for him or her
  • A great leader commits 100% (rather than making his or her staff do that on their own)
  • A great leader believes in himself or herself – and most importantly in his or her team
  • A great leader isn’t afraid to admit he or she is wrong – and then adjust course as needed
  • A great leader knows how to delegate and doesn’t claim to know it all
  • A great leader doesn’t micromanage – and doesn’t need to
  • A great leader isn’t afraid of staff who know more than s/he does. In fact, a real leader looks for talent, since the leader is not the one who has to know everything, s/he just makes sure it happens.
  • A great leader mobilizes his or her team and then knows when to step aside and let them take the lead, offer new ideas, and create their own solutions.
  • A great leader knows how to recognize, nurture and build talent
  • A great leader encourages unity, but also is not challenged by disagreement – in fact builds in mechanisms for that to help build the Enterprise…er…enterprise.
  • A great leader is always there for his or her team – when they run up against roadblocks as well as when they succeed
  • A great leader knows when – and just how much – to bend the rules
  • A great leader knows how – and is not afraid – to make tough decisions
  • A great leader inspires loyalty – and is loyal back to his team
  • A great leader makes sure to let the team know when a job has been done well
  • A great leader  knows how to leave a team member – or even entire team – feeling motivated even if they screw up

Let’s Never Lose the Human Factor in Leadership

Not one of the qualities listed above speaks to things like reaching every goal, never missing a deadline, stifling disagreement, cutting costs to the bone, letting employees live in fear of losing their jobs, pitting staff against each other, or ruling with an iron fist from above – plus a few flying monkeys to do one’s bidding. And yet a lot of bosses who think they are great leaders proscribe to precisely those methods. Very unKirk-like behavior, don’t you think?

James T. Kirk excelled as a leader despite (and I submit enhanced by) his many decidedly-human qualities, lack of Spock-like formality and rebel nature. He inspired loyalty because of who he was and how he treated his crew. And he seems to have come by his leadership abilities naturally, despite Academy training trying to delete the flaws.

Of course, we who follow Star Trek also know our beloved half-human Spock eventually learned to be a good leader (aided by Kirk’s mentoring, unwavering support, and belief in his abilities), but let’s face it…no matter how far Spock got, he could never become the inspiring leader our 100% human-to-the-core Captain Kirk was.  Logic and precision can only go so far. 😉

As for examples of great real-life iconic leaders, for me Mohandas Gandhi and a man he inspired, Martin Luther King, immediately come to mind – not that either of them could have led major IT projects with any more compassion, skill, resourcefulness and determination than a certain inspiring woman IT Director I worked for.

So what about you? Any great leaders from any time or dimension – real or fictional – pop into your mind?


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Hi Ronnie,
    Great post – as always….Leaders, leaders, leaders – everyone is talking about them. I wonder why?
    With trust levels in the sub-basement and dropping – we are turning over every rock to find leaders. But isn’t what we want in leadership really a reflection of our deeper (mostly unmet) needs?
    You’ve covered every base in your dream leader list. I’ll add one – empathy – but implicit in many of the items in your list is empathy – because leaders can’t do those things without it.
    I am glad you added compassion, too, because it is one of those emotions we still don’t discuss in the workplace. Still too soft?
    Although not a Star Trek devotee, I do know that Kirk was real. His humanness was palpable. Authentic. Another quality I hear people yearning for.
    As John Lennon sang so passionately – Just give me some truth – all I want is the truth……
    Enjoyed reading this!

  2. Karen Bice says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. Many excellent leadership qualities. I retweeted this and cc’d @williamshatner. 🙂

  3. Louise: Thanks so much for the visit and adding so nicely to the conversation. While you are of course right that empathy is assumed in some of the points I made, it is important enough to stand on it’s own. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront.

    Karen: Nice to see you here. Thanks for the kind words and tweet – and especially for copying William Shatner. Made my day. 😉

    • Karen Bice says:

      You’re welcome, Ronnie. It would be nice if WS responded to your post, but I understand he’s now busy with Sh#% My Dad Says. 🙂 Anyway, Capt. Kirk is a fine example for leadership.

  4. You caught my attention with this one, RA! As a huge Star Trek fan, I’ve always found the characters memorable as well as mythical…they are archtypes, I think. Yes, Kirk was a GREAT leader and embraced many of the terrific qualities you mention (I may be a half-way good leader myself, given that criteria, yay!) but good leaders need good support, and in the series, Dr. McCoy was there to give Kirk a reality check at times; to talk to him candidly, and point out his “stuff”. As a support person, I have more McCoy in me than Kirk, but, fortunately, the world needs both!
    Thank you for this! I particularly appreciated the paragraph right after the list of qualities. Kirk certainly didn’t “meet every goal”, in fact, sometimes he got his comeupence. The most important thing he did was inspire trust. Is that something that can be taught, or is in inherent? I’m not sure….

  5. Ah Muse! I had a strong feeling this might tickle your tribbles. Thanks for adding so nicely to the discussion. So true about support. Takes a great leader to know true talent and to also trust and listen to them.

    Good question about whether the quality of inspiring trust can be taught or it’s inherent. I’d like to go out on a limb and say that 99.976% of us have the capability at one time or another. Whether it can be adapted to the workplace is a challenge we should assume anyone could rise to under the right circumstances. But for folks with a lifetime of negative feedback and experiences to draw on…the real question is what would it take to make that happen. Would love some thoughts on this.

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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