Creative Leadership Lessons from Star Trek

Creative Leadership Lessons from Star Trek

Creative Leadership Lessons from Star Trek

Celebrating International Women’s Day: What can a (fictional) female starship captain teach us about leadership?

In honor of International Women’s Day, and knowing the power of fiction to inspire, let’s consider what we can learn about leadership from the first female starship captain to be featured in a stand-alone Star Trek series. Captain Kathryn Janeway had the most difficult task in all of the Star Trek world: bring her crew home after they got stranded 70,000 light-years away from Earth. And she is reprising the role as a hologram adviser in an animated series Prodigy, again facing a daunting task – helping a ragtag group of alien youth as they navigate to the Federation space in search of safety and a better life.

Captain Janeway’s leadership style is different from other captains in the Star Trek universe. She is more measured than Captain Kirk from the Original Series and less aloof than Captain Picard from The Next Generation series. She is an immensely successful leader, solving problems never seen before. How she did it on Voyager and continues to do it on the Protostar offers four main lessons about creative leadership.

1. Leading with emotional intelligence

Emotionally intelligent leaders are skilled in four ways related to dealing with one’s own and others’ emotions. First, they are skilled at accurately reading emotions, such as realizing when someone is frustrated or disappointed. They are not only aware of emotions but acknowledge them explicitly. Second, emotionally intelligent leaders help their staff channel feelings, even difficult ones, toward achieving important goals. They inspire enthusiasm and lead by hearing and considering both optimistic and pessimistic voices (or, concerns and hopes behind them). Third, emotionally intelligent leaders understand how their decisions or other events affect staff. And finally, they successfully manage their own emotions, as well as help staff when they are discouraged.

In one episode, Voyager received a distress signal and found a group of aliens in hibernation pods whose consciousness was connected to a computer. A character in the artificial computer world started manifesting aliens’ fears and tormenting them, eventually killing many. Captain Janeway showed a deep understanding of emotions and their power in trying to help the trapped aliens. She addressed personified fear directly, “I've known fear. It's a very healthy thing most of the time. You warn us of danger, remind us of our limits, protect us from carelessness. I've learned to trust fear.” But then she also added, “You know, as well as I do, that fear only exists for one purpose. To be conquered.”

When Captain Janeway faced aliens who persecuted telepathic peoples (in Nazi-like fashion), she both allowed herself to get close to an apparent high-ranking defector and planned for the possibility of him not being honest. She worked with the defector to creatively think about a complex technical problem and appeared swept by enthusiasm and optimism of the partnership, even developing romantic feelings for him. However, her emotional intelligence abilities warned her to also consider the pessimistic possibility of deception. This ability eventually saved the alien refugees and those of her crew members with telepathic abilities.

On the Protostar, Janeway shows emotional intelligence in the care for the crew. When young Rok is trapped in slow passing time, and spends what could be an equivalent of multiple years completely alone, Janeway is clearly aware of the emotional toll the isolation can leave on a child. In isolation, Rok taught herself science and engineering necessary to save the ship, restore the timeline, and reunite the crew (after 276 attempts). As Gwyn asks how long was Rok alone, Janeway responds with noticeable sadness that it was “too long”. She acknowledges the greatness of the achievement, but does not ignore its emotional price.

2. Creating community and a sense of belongingness

Leaders communicate values and norms of acceptable behavior, sometimes explicitly through formal practices (e.g., staff meetings, evaluation processes) and often implicitly, through the example of their own behavior. Because leaders directly affect the nature of staff jobs and experience, their behavior is a key influence on the emotional and ethical climate of an organization.

When Voyager got stranded in the remote part of the galaxy, Captain Janeway had to decide how she would relate to her crew. Traditionally, starship captains would stay somewhat apart from their crew, but she recognized that their unusual circumstances required greater closeness and building an emotionally tight-knit community. This is what professor Sigal Barsade at the University of Pennsylvania called the culture of companionate love and demonstrated that it is related (just like on the starship Voyager) to more staff satisfaction and teamwork and less exhaustion.

Captain Janeway had to integrate the Voyager crew with the Maquis guerrilla fighters who got stranded alongside them. These groups started with different values and habits, but became a unified crew under Janeway’s leadership, standing together even when they had a chance to start lives on a new planet. Janeway the pulse of her crew and realized how difficult it is to be far from friends and family and not know whether they would ever see their homes again. She was sensitive to changes in crew morale and even appointed a chief morale officer who (sometimes comically or overenthusiastically) recreated cultural rituals and celebrations to support the crew.

She also knew about the importance of rest and recreation. She provided opportunities for the crew to take shore leave on friendly planets, even when that might have delayed their long journey home. And while on the starship, she made the holodecks, fully immersive virtual reality environments, available to the crew when they were not on duty. Moreover, she often joined in the fun (such as in the recreation of a 19th-century Irish town of Fair Haven).

And we know her investment in the community worked. Even when facing a chance of making it home more quickly in a matter not supported by the Captain (and with some serious ethical questions) the crew elected to follow Janeway.

Janeway’s task of building a unified crew is even more difficult on the Protostar, where she is leading a group of children and teens. They come from different worlds, have emotional scars from abandonment and bondage on a forced labor mining colony. They are a collection of hurt individuals who she guides to becoming a crew. Learning to work together is a process and it takes time, and they stumble. Traditional team building exercises do not work when Janway tries them on the holodeck. What brings the team together is working on a real-life problem when faced with imminent danger and being thrown into separate time realities. The two-part season finale starts with the crew showing their newly found sense of belonging by dressing in Starfleet uniforms.

3. Supporting staff growth and creativity

Emotionally intelligent leaders tend to create opportunities for their staff to grow, which in turn enhances staff creativity and innovation. Our research at Yale shows that leaders who act in emotionally intelligent ways, have staff who develop new skills, feel more positive about their jobs, and are more likely to contribute new ideas or original ways to achieve work goals. Workers across industries in our national survey described being motivated, enjoying work, and finding it both challenging and fulfilling when their supervisor was emotionally intelligent. These feelings have important consequences, they create the kind of environment that is conducive to engagement, creativity, and innovation.

Captain Janeway repeatedly showed concern for staff growth, from recruiting a pilot who was serving a sentence in a penal colony and giving him a second chance, to supporting the skill development of her officers, to taking a personal interest in underperforming crew members. When the Captain learned that three crew members did not perform at acceptable levels, she took them with her on an astronomical survey mission in a shuttlecraft. Not to discipline or punish them, but to learn about them and find a way to engage them.

She particularly invested in developing leadership potential in the crew. She provided leadership opportunities to the Maqui crew – a band of rebels who by happenstance ended up stranded along with Voyager. The Captain also supported many individuals in their growth. Although Voyager fans joke about ensign Kim not being promoted after seven years of exemplary service, Captain Janeway gave him every opportunity to build skills. She supported his idea for a redesign of the astrometric laboratory and provided him a way to gain command experience. The Captain also allowed The Doctor, an artificial life form (hologram), to exceed his original programming, develop relationships with other crew members, and extend his responsibilities to serve in a command role when needed. When The Doctor wanted to leave Voyager for a singing career on an alien planet, Janeway said that as the Captain, she should forbid him to leave, but as a friend, she wished him well.

In Prodigy, Janeway is a training hologram. She teaches the crew about the values of the United Federation of Planets and about navigating a star ship alike. But her support is most obvious in a life and death situation – guiding the crew as they work to save the ship by constructing a warp matrix. She shares the story of Apollo 13 with Dal when he realizes that a high-tech solution he thought of would not be possible. Janeway tells him that Apollo 13 had to use whatever materials they could find to make the necessary repairs. She encourages him by saying that they had something that Dal also has: ingenuity. And when he despairs about having run out of time, Janeway assures him of his contribution and urges him to trust that others will continue and complete the work.

4. Daring to take risks, and adjusting when necessary

Creative leadership requires a willingness to take risks and approach tasks with a long-term perspective in mind. Creative solutions to difficult problems have to be original, which inherently involves a risk of an idea not working as well as imagined. When that happens, creative leaders are able to adjust and change their approach.

Faced with a common dangerous enemy, Captain Janeway decided to take a big risk and form an alliance with the Borg, possibly the most formidable and terrifying entity in all of Star Trek. After initial cooperation, the Borg turned on Voyager. But the Captain realized the mistake too and changes course, working together with her first officer.

At the end of the series, Captain Janeway traveled from the future to help her younger self and the crew return home, despite knowing about the perils of time travel. The young and the old Janeway worked to create a plan which would both bring Voyager home and deliver a blow to the Borg.

As the Prodigy crew faces the powerful Diviner intent on capturing the Protostar and using it for his goal of destroying the Federation, Janeway helps her crew through a high-risk mission. As they prepare to save the captive miners and recapture the ship, she offers the highest praise, “I just wanna say, I know you never thought you were Starfleet material, but today, you're risking everything on a seemingly impossible mission to save others, to bring hope to a hopeless cause. Nothing's more Starfleet than that.”

Captain (later Admiral and training hologram) Kathryn Janeway embodied the Star Trek motto “To boldly go.” This is key to creative leadership. This courage propels us forward, whether we are on a starship stranded far from home or developing our teams and innovating at work.


Barsade, S. G., & O'Neill, O. A. (2014). What’s love got to do with it? A longitudinal study of the culture of companionate love and employee and client outcomes in a long-term care setting. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(4), 551–598.

Ivcevic, Z., Moeller, J., Menges, J., & Brackett, M. A. (2020). Supervisor emotionally intelligent behavior and employee creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior. doi:10.1002/jocb.436

An earlier version of this article appeared on Psychology Today on March 8, 2021.

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