The Character Movement

“There’s coffee in that nebula,” said Captain Kathryn Janeway.

Star Trek Taught Me How to Lead

My favorite Star Trek quote comes from Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth. It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based.” I love that quote because it speaks to me in the beautiful language of absolutes. There is a truth, and there is a lie. There is a right, and there is a wrong. There is a success, and there is a failure. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s aspirational and it is achievable. Picard led his team with the absolute and unshakeable idea that as long as you do the right thing, you will be a great leader and your people will follow you. This sentiment has guided much of my early life and had a pretty definite, if at times misguided, impact on my path to leadership.

My leadership started early, circa 1989, when I’d talk (coerce?) the neighbor kids into putting on plays for our parents. I would tell them what to say, where to stand, what to wear, how to act. I’d create props, and yell at them when they didn’t use them right (I’m so sorry, Diana!); and if they couldn’t remember their lines, I’d be furious (Alison, I’m sure you would be great at remembering lines now!). It was so important to me that everything was just so, that everything I envisioned in my head became a reality exactly as I imagined it. There was no room for error, no room for compromise, no room for anything less than the best (at least, what I thought was best). I was pretty bossy, and I enjoyed it. I liked directing my friends in the tiniest details; it was like a lifesize version of playing Legos.

As a result, our plays were amazing. My exacting behavior produced some pretty elaborate and imaginative stuff. My parents and their friends still talk about those plays to this day. Our interactive Pirate’s Treasure play hid the treasure so well, that it was only ever found when my parents moved out of that house in 2008. Now that is real “commitment to the bit”.

Alas, though our plays were awesome, the truth was …I was a general neighborhood menace. It was so important to me to create a live performance we could all enjoy, that I forgot to let us all enjoy it. The most important thing was that they got it right, not that we had fun. It wasn’t long before no one wanted to be in my plays.

Honestly, this was a pretty typical snapshot of Jessica’s brain for the next 20 years. I quite frequently found myself in leadership positions, whether it was directing a play, editing a class newspaper, or being the captain of small-group projects. I would either volunteer to play that role, or I would be elected by my teacher or supervisor to fill that role. I knew I had the potential to be great, and my teachers must have seen the same thing. But with Picard’s quote paramount in my mind,  I was never the leader of a group for long. Looking back, I’m sure those two things were directly correlated.

In my twenties, another quote from Star Trek expanded my leadership perspective.

Though I love Jean-Luc Picard, my absolute number-one role model was always, and remains to this day, Captain Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. Janeway is strong, decisive, playful, intelligent, skilled, cunning, aggressive, forgiving, respected. One of her most memorable quotes is “There’s coffee in that nebula.” I’m a big fan of coffee, and never go a day without it, so for the longest time, this was just a whimsical quote about my favorite addiction.

Then something happened in my life that started to shift my view and made Janeway’s quote take on a whole new meaning. It was such a small interaction, that I am sure the other person involved has no memory of it whatsoever. I was stage managing a show, and managing a woman on the crew named Kathryn (last name not Janeway). I told her to go sweep backstage behind the set before rehearsals started. I probably said something along the lines of “I’d like you to go sweep behind the set before we get started.” Later that day she came up to me and expressed how upset she was, and she was indeed very visibly upset. She ended up saying to me, “It really upset me that you told me to do something. You should have asked. It’s not nice to tell people to do things.” I was shocked and asked her what I could do to remedy the situation. “You should always ask,” she replied.

She was a little off the mark. As a stage manager, it was my job to dole out jobs and roles and coordinate timelines and schedules. It was also one of her main duties to sweep the stage. It was irrelevant whether I asked her or told her — it was my job to direct her job, that’s just how theater works.

Because her reaction wasn’t logical, it jolted me in a very real sense. Even though her role was clear, and my role was clear, and I was in “the right,” and she was “overreacting” — even though all those things were true, it didn’t negate the fact that I had a very upset person in front of me, and that I was the cause of her upset.

As I continued to think about that interaction and many others that followed it, I started to piece it all together. Sure, I could put on good plays, and of course, my work product was always impeccable. But, I never took the time to connect with the people who were a part of making that happen. That’s when I started to understand Janeway’s quote differently.

Janeway uttered the phrase “There’s coffee in that nebula” in response to finding a nebula that supposedly had omicron particles, which would fuel the starship’s depleted reserves. But Janeway didn’t talk about the energy reserves, or the effect on the ship, or any of that — she talked about coffee. She talked about the mission from the human-impact perspective, not from the project perspective. What was important at that moment was what the omicron particles would mean for the crew, not what they would mean for the ship.

It would have been the same thing as me saying, “Hey friends, let’s make our audience laugh during this part of the play.” Or, “Kathryn, can you help me make sure the actors don’t slip when they walk backstage?” Leaders don’t lead just projects or results; leaders lead people. Do leaders produce tangible, quality work? Yes, and they lead people in order to do it.

Every leader has their own style, and I’m still figuring mine out. I think there is a lot of value in Picard’s “duty to the truth,” and I think there is value in Janeway’s coffee nebula. I am absolutely certain that there are more leadership lessons to be learned from Star Trek, and I hope I will continue to recognize how to apply them to my leadership style to be a better leader.

Lead on and prosper, friends.

By Jessica Thompson, Youth Frontiers Director of Finance and Human Resources


This year, on The Character Movement, we are trying something new. We’ll be delving into one of our retreat values each month, examining it on our blog and in our Character Challenges. This month’s theme is leadership.

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