Growing up, an influential television character for me was Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek the Next Generation.
Picard was a portrayal of a different sort of leader to most. Picard didn’t order people about. He didn’t assume he knew best. He wasn’t seeking glory. In his words: “we work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity”. The Enterprise was a vehicle for his crew to better themselves and society. What a brilliant metaphor for organisations to aspire to.
My current job title is “Director of engineering”. I kind of hate it. I don’t want to direct anybody. I represent them as part of my first team. People don’t report to me; I support people. My mission is to clarify so they can decide for themselves, and to help them build skills so they can succeed.
Director is just a word, but words matter. Language matters.
Picard was an effective leader in part due to the language he used. Here’s a few lessons we can learn from the way he talked.
“Make it So!”
Picard is probably best known for saying “make it so!”.
This catchphrase says so much about his leadership style. He doesn’t bark orders. He gives the crew the problems to solve. He listens to his crew and supports their ideas. His crew state their intent and he affirms (or not) their decisions.
I think “Make it so” is even more powerful than the more common “very well” or “do it”, which are merely agreeing with the action being proposed.
“Make it so” is instead an agreement with the outcome being proposed. The crew are still free to adjust their course of action to achieve that outcome. They won’t necessarily have to come back for approval if they have to change their plan to achieve the same outcome. They understand their commander’s intent.
And of course it’s asking for action “wishing for a thing does not make it so”
It’s fitting that he says this more than make it so. Not everything learned requires action. It’s easy to come out of retrospectives with a long list of actions. I’d rather we learned something and took no actions than took action without learning anything.
In “Cause and Effect” (The one with Captain Fraiser Crane) there’s an imminent crisis. The Enterprise is on a collision course with another ship and are unable to maneuver. What does Picard do? Resort to command and control? No; despite the urgency he asks for suggestions from the crew. Followed by a “make it so” agreement to act.
Asking for suggestions during a crisis requires enough humility to realise your crew or team is collectively smarter than you are. Picard trusts his team to come up with the best options.
He is also willing to show vulnerability, even during a crisis. His ego doesn’t get in the way.
In this episode, the crew did not automatically follow the suggestion of the most senior person in the room. The solution to the crisis is eventually found in the second suggestion, after they tried the first. They succeeded because they had diverged and discovered options first, before converging on a solution.
The crew were aware of the other options open to them, and when the first failed they acted to try another (successful) option. Crucially, they did not wait for their captain to approve it. There wasn’t time to let the captain make the decision, but they were free to try the other options because they’d been told to “make it so” not “do it”.
To achieve the best outcomes as a team, intentionally seek divergent ideas first before converging on a decision. Avoid converging too soon on an idea that sounds promising, when others in the group may have better ideas. If your first choice doesn’t work out you will be able to try the other ideas that came up.
Picard made sure his crew knew when he thought they had done well. Even when they violated orders! He was not one to blindly follow orders himself and he praised his crew when they violated orders for good reasons.
Data’s violation of orders is met not with a reprimand but a “nicely done!”; when Data questions it Picard responds “The claim ‘I was only following orders’ has been used to justify too many tragedies in our history”
How different might the tech industry be if more people carefully considered whether doing what they’ve been told is the right or wrong thing to do?