Seasoned starship Captain, Jean-Luc Picard, is one of the most enduring of TV characters. Ethical, wise, learnèd and calm, Picard is a source of inspiration and compassion and he remains a personified example of strong and effective leadership.
Whether it be turning his hand to representing his colleagues in a Court of law, determining the next strategic step in a delicate diplomatic mission, or drawing on his wide life experiences to help inform his decision making, Captain Picard is routinely successful in bringing people with him, acting in their best interests and advancing his crew’s cause for the better.
Commanding a spaceship is no mean feat: challenging crew members, difficult aliens, unforeseen circumstances and often very little additional help from HQ. In many ways it could be an analogy for running a school. So let’s take a look at the leadership lessons from Captain Picard and see how they correlate to the leadership and management of a busy school environment.
Admitting when mistakes are made and owning errors
Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve seen so many people, supposèd leaders in our community, fail to recognise this: politicians have a particular knack for being incapable of an admitting to a mistake. And yet, the power of an admission of human error and an apology if one is due is considerable. It can diffuse tension; it can reframe disaster as circumstance; it can build respect, integrity, honesty and trust; and it is the human thing to do. People are more forgiving, more understanding. And leaders can always benefit from a more sympathetic and understanding followership. Captain Picard knows this and we see frequent examples of his willingness to own his decisions and own his mistakes.
Captain Picard also knows the power of an apology. As a man of supreme integrity and good conscience, he will seek to rectify his words and actions if he is in the wrong. In the film “First Contact” he cuts down Lt. Commander Worf with an insult he does not truly mean but which he knows will cause maximum hurt. It does not take him long to regret his actions, and he is quick, forthright and genuine with the apology.
The greatest moment of the film, however, isn’t the apology itself; it’s what comes after. Picard accepts that his vendetta against the Borg is, in fact, personal, and acknowledges that he needs to move beyond that fixation to save his crew. It’s never easy to accept when we’re wrong, and it’s all the more moving to see such an icon admit that he’s been shortsighted.
Effective headteachers and senior school leaders will gain the respect of their colleagues and communities if they too remember these principles. Leadership usually doesn’t fail on the back of one or two moments and decisions. It is often because it is sustained and systematic. An occasional dose of humility, acknowledgement of a mistake and a sincere apology if required can go a long way.
Taking advice, listening to all the options, and being decisive
Effective leaders know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. So often it is pitted the other way, and we are programmed to believe that leaders should always know the answer and if they don’t they are incompetent. In fact, the opposite is often true and there are countless examples of Picard turning to others for help and assistance. There is no pride, no humiliation in his asking for help.
In one such example, Picard finds himself facing a colossal threat in the form of the Borg, a hitherto unknown and unseen force of evil. Picard has no hesitation in asking his long-time adversary, Q, a seemingly omnipotent being, to click his fingers and restore the Enterprise and her crew to a safer place.
“You wanted to frighten us. We’re frightened. You wanted to show us that we were inadequate. For the moment… I grant that. You wanted me to say, ‘I need you’? I need you!”Captain Picard, S2 E16 Q Who?
In other scenes we become used to Picard assembling his senior officers around the conference table to listen to the advice and options of his team – each an expert in their own specialist area. It reminds me of the value in doing this when making strategic decisions in school – I am not the expert in early years, or in maths mastery, or in many other aspects of school life. But I am surrounded by people who are, and it is their counsel that I seek as often as I can.
You can read about the hierarchy of meetings in my schools here.
There are times when Picard finds himself on the bridge of his ship having to respond quickly to unfolding events. Here so often he will get the balance right between trusting his gut instinct – and as he ages and seasons throughout Star Trek’s years he learns to trust that instinct more and more – and taking quick snippets of opinion and options from his most trusted aides. In schools, leaders are often facing events that develop apace, and heads will find they have to be decisive. Sometimes, a small number from the SLT – the deputy and an assistant head, for example – will be asked for their views.
Dealing with complaints; PR; legitimate but emotive queries from parents… these are all issues which can explode onto the scene at any given moment and require a quick – but careful – response. Like Picard, I have got better over time at trusting myself and have years worth of experience to turn to to guide my decisions. But there are also times when I know instinctively to seek out the views of my Heads of Schools to give perspective and balance to my decisions.
Having interests outside of the job
Captain Picard keeps a healthy outlook on life with a wide variety of interests and recreational pursuits, including his near-professional pursuit of archeology. He enjoys a wide range of literature, especially detective fiction such as Dixon Hill, and Shakespearean drama; he enjoys role-playing the former in holo-programs, and shows a keen interest in classical music and attending the shipboard concerts and plays on the Enterprise. He has a deep connection to music and plays a flute on which he is self-taught..
Picard’s interests go well beyond archeology and literature, however. The subject of planetary motion and physics is another. He was the first to discover the spacefaring life form the Crystalline Entity, and he discovered an ancient Promellian battle cruiser. He has studied semantics and keeps his Latin fresh. His private quarters are homely and are filled with ornaments, artefacts and belongings which represent and amplify his personal interests – there is little sign of his Starfleet captaincy or career here.
This all bodes well for Picard as a leader. When faced with tough and challenging moments or called upon to make difficult decisions, he has a wealth of life experience and wider knowledge and interests to draw upon to add additional perspective and balance.
Effective school leaders will also have a life beyond the school and beyond the world of education. I am intensely interested in education – it is a sincere interest, a genuine passion, a real vocation. I engage in #EduTwitter, attend conferences and CPD outside of school time, read around the subject, and even maintain my own website and blog on the theme of school leadership. But I also enjoy time with my family, time in the pub, time with my friends. I am interested in politics, and read more on this subject than I do on education. I often have multiple books on the go; a mix of escapist fiction, political insight and biographies. I follow football. I read the sports pages of the BBC and subscribe to podcasts and radio shows about the sport. I am not defined by my job even though it is a big part of who I am. I actively encourage my team to step away from school and education over the weekends – I firmly believe in work-life balance and I lead by example in this area. It doesn’t mean I have weak expectations or low standards – quite the opposite. Working in my federation of schools is damn hard work, as it should be. But a life outside of that world energises people. It is healthy for mind and body. And, I believe, the out of work experiences, interests and pursuits enhance the character of a person, build them into a more rounded person and that adds untold depths to their professional output.
You can read more about about strategies to encourage better staff well-being in an earlier blog I wrote here.
Unleashing the potential of others
“There Was A Time You Looked At The Stars And Dreamed Of What Might Be.”Captain Picard, Star Trek: Nemesis.
It should surely go without saying that headteachers are there to create the circumstances and opportunities within their schools for everyone to grow, develop and become more than they are. Whilst true for their staff team (and you can read more on my thoughts about staff CPD here) it is absolutely vital for school leaders and teachers to seek to remove barriers to learning for their pupils; to present opportunities for their pupils to experience culture, music, performance, literature, science, art… life; to inspire and motivate; to unleash their pupils’ potential.
The Captain Picard philosophy as shown in this video clip is his – but it must also be that of the headteacher:
“Inside you is the potential to make yourself better…and that is what it is to be human. To make yourself more than you are.”Captain Picard, Star Trek: Nemesis.
Giving people a second chance and developing others
“I prefer to think of the future as something that is not written in stone. Your life is what you make of it. No one follows a set path and it’s never too late to make a change.”Captain Picard, S7 E26 All Good Things.
Picard had to come down on his crew and correct their actions from time to time, but he always did it by framing the conversation so that he could encourage them while correcting. The trick Picard used was reminding his crew of their responsibilities to their uniform and Starfleet.
By reminding his crew of the standards he expected of them he not only corrected their actions, but also made them realize what they could be. He wanted them to correct their actions so that they could become a better officer or crewman and advance and grow.
So instead of saying “you’re going to get put on capability if…” the Captain Picard approach would be to say “if you want to advance in this school…”
Picard also utters words of wisdom to encourage and even inspire his crew, much like a headteacher must use language to motivate and engage their team of teachers.
In the episode “Coming of Age” Wesley Crusher is seen participating in an entrance exam for Starfleet Academy featuring a number of difficult trials. Wesley performs admirably but ends up failing, which shatters his confidence and leads him to believe he has let his crew down.
Picard instantly dismisses this mode of thinking and reminds Wesley that studying harder will lead to success on his next attempt. He then speaks this quote, which is excellent advice not just for Wesley, but for all of us.
“You Have To Measure Your Successes And Your Failures Within. Not By Anything That I Or Anyone Else Might Think.”Captain Picard, S1 E19 Coming of Age.
Acting with principles and integrity
“There Are Times, Sir, When Men Of Good Conscience Cannot Blindly Follow Orders.”Captain Picard, S3 E16 The Offspring.
Picard was never one to back down when his values were on the line. Standing up for what you believe in is important, it helps not only define who you are, but who those that follow you are.
If a leader is willing to bend their own values when put under pressure what do you think is going to happen to those they lead? If the leader doesn’t have the strength to make a stand then those that follow them will have little chance of doing it themselves.
Captain Picard’s values were his compass and by holding fast to them he was able to navigate any situation.
Lastly, and most importantly, is Captain Picard’s catch phrase “Engage!” You can’t be a leader from the backseat, you have to pick a star and head off into the unknown. Being a leader is for the bold and the brave, so boldly go just like Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
If you want to be respected as a leader people have to know you’ll get your hands dirty and be right beside them when the going gets tough. I refer to this as visible leadership. You can read more on my reflections about Visible Leadership here.
The sky is the limit after all.
Fire in the belly, passion in the eyes
It was rarely seen, but anger did sometime erupt out of Picard. It was a useful narrative device in the Star Trek programme. It defined his values and beliefs because the anger showed itself only when his principles were questioned and his values came under fire.
Headteachers, too, are guided by deep-seated values and beliefs. Each leader’s school is a personification of what they stand for and what they believe. Uniquness and character is encouraged in our noble profession. But scratch beyond the surface of the differences – and a brief scroll on #EduTwitter will give rise to a whole plethora of such dialogues: prog vs trad, knowledge vs skills, primary vs secondary…. – and you will find that there is more that unites educators than divides them. Most can agree on the fundamentals: a need to invest in education; a need to fund schools, teachers and pupils adequately; a need to build robust and sensible systems for accountability; and so on. When the fundamentals are attacked, those who truly subscribe to them and those who are guided with that as their faith find that their anger can be a highly effective tool in harnessing the passion, the values and the beliefs by which they are upheld. I talk from personal experience here, and once found that my mild-mannered teacher persona needed to roar like a lion when I looked around and saw everything I stood for and believed in coming under the threat of a clear and present danger.
“The line must be drawn here. This far. no further.” These are the words of Captain Picard in the film First Contact, but they resonate with me as a school leader. It’s not the standard. It’s not the norm. But the very occasional eruption is entirely demonstrable of just how deep-seated a school leader’s philosophy of education can be. You can read more about the David-and-Goliath pay battle with the Isle of Man’s government and education department here.
The final word on Captain Picard has to be this. Speaking to an enemy being who accuses him and his crew of being unworthy of existence, Picard exclaims “who are you to judge?” I just wonder how many headteachers and school leaders can find resonance in these words with their own feelings about OFSTED, particularly given the additional challenges of the C19 pandemic of recent years?
“If We’re Going To Be Damned, Let’s Be Damned For What We Really Are.”Captain Picard, S1 E1 Encounter At Farpoint.
Are there any other Star Trek fans out there working in education? Are there any leadership lessons I’ve missed from Captain Picard or any other Star Trek characters who say / do things which correlate to our work in schools? I’d love you to let me know by adding a comment to this blog.
Evans, C. (2016) “Lessons in Leadership I Learned From Captain Picard” Fansided (sourced online https://redshirtsalwaysdie.com/2016/06/16/lessons-in-leadership-i-learned-from-captain-picard/11/ Accessed 26.9.2021)
Draven, D. (2020) “Star Trek TNG: Captain Picard’s 10 Most Heroic Quotes” ScreenRant (sourced online https://screenrant.com/star-trek-tng-picard-heroic-quotes/ Accessed 27.9.2021)
Faraci, D. (2020) “Make It So: The 10 Greatest Quotes From Star Trek’s Captain Picard” CRB.com (sourced online https://www.cbr.com/stark-trek-captain-picard-greatest-best-quotes/ Accessed 28.9.2021)