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What Star Trek Taught Me About Leadership

The combination of a late winter cold and a Netflix subscription produced an unintended consequence: I became a bit of a Trekkie.

The series provides an endless supply of stories, tropes, and unexpected lessons from the USS Enterprise, which enabled me to get through the longest of snow days. Part of my newfound fascination derives from the pure silliness of the gaping plot holes that one could drive a truck through. For example, why is the holodeck, which is just fake images, so dangerous? Or why after so much carnage do crews beam down to new planets in such a willy-nilly fashion that someone in a red shirt gets nicked every episode? And why is the sole power source of the ship the dilithium crystals, given that they are so finicky?

But when you look past these plot quirks, the show is also a study on the difficult and constant decisions leaders have to make.

Captain Kirk and Captain Picard (I am not into Deep Space Nine yet) are faced with endless dilemmas. The crew on the enterprise consists of both explorers and emissaries, uniting for a peaceful co-existence across the universe. They must carry out their mission in the context of working with opposing cultures, complex histories, and competing agendas. Making decisions under these conditions would be difficult under ideal circumstances—but on the USS Enterprise, circumstances are rarely ideal, given that whole unknown fictional reaches of space aspect.

To guide important decisions, each Star Ship Captain is bound by the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive is the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets (that deployed the Enterprise) that prohibits anyone on Starfleet from interfering with the development of alien nations as to not inflict unintended consequences. Many episodes focus on the Captain making hard decisions with only the doctrine of the Prime Directive to guide him.

The quality and morality of the Prime Directive is extensively debated by far more engaged Trekkies than me, but as a person who has worked across sectors to help organizations create and then attain strategic visions, I have to applaud the prime directive for acting as a guiding star for an organization literally (albeit fictionally) spread across galaxies.

A Prime Directive is an essential value that encourages you—and everyone on your team—to do the right thing when nobody is watching.

The Prime Directive is the Starfleet’s core doctrine, or a principle that serves as a guide to action. The Directive serves as the true North that keeps dispersed teams from all different backgrounds and working contexts from moving in circles. Just as in real life, the team of the enterprise is left to make split-moment decisions in remote field locations, when regardless of whether communications cut out, and when no one is looking. The Prime Directive is a constant guide to help the crew to know the right thing to do when a clear directives from senior leadership is not present.

As leaders, the decisions we have to make are often difficult and complex, and a Prime Directive can cut through the convoluted factors involved in any decision-making process to keep our mission on course. In short, a Prime Directive is an essential value that encourages you—and everyone on your team—to do the right thing when nobody is watching.

The seminal article in Harvard Business Review From Purpose to Impact, by Nick Craig and Scott Snook, sums up the utility of having a guiding North Star. Craig and Snook note that a defined purpose is a critical navigation tool in an increasingly complex world, where few decisions are clearly right or clearly wrong. Without a backbone set of values, achieving our most ambitious goals will be all but impossible as we become mired in daily details and difficulties. Priorities reflect one’s daily reality. Naturally, the priorities of communities, staff, departments, and donors are difficult to align, resulting in leaders being all-too-easily pushed off course.

Identifying my Prime Directive

I saw what happens when organizations focus more on what is politically popular than on what is effective in the field.

You can only be a leader when people are willing to follow you. And, if a leader does not know which way they are going, it becomes increasingly hard for people to follow him or her. What is the nature of your organization? What is the core value you know to be true? If there is one thing your organization must do, what is it? Reflecting on these types of questions can help you to arrive at a core value to follow relentlessly, every time, even when it is not convenient. When teams see leaders utilizing a prime directive they will have a North Star to follow at every fork in the road.

In 2009, I stood in many dusty cornfields across Sub-Sahara Africa and saw what happens when organizations focus more on what is politically popular than on what is effective in the field. This experience helped solidify my own prime directive. I am driven by efficacy. Being driven by efficacy led me to know that my prime directive is to increase the efficacy of every philanthropic dollar spent. This tenant is the lens through which I assess every project. To follow my Prime Directive, I ask these five questions every time I approach a new social initiative:

  1. Do people really need it?
  2. Does it work?
  3. How do we know it works?
  4. Does it matter?
  5. Could someone else do it better?

My directive of questioning the efficacy of every dollar is what helps me cut through politics to make stronger decisions that help populations I seek to serve.

Also—and please forgive my burgeoning Trekkie cheesiness—but without a Prime Directive, how else can leaders inspire people to boldly go where no man has gone before?

About the Author| Melissa Lloyd is the founder of Lloyd Advisors working to transform how nonprofits and international development agencies do business. Her work is driven by a long-standing passion for maximizing the efficacy of every philanthropic dollar. She can be reached at

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