Leadership Lessons from Captain Kirk

After attending the MEMSPA (Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principal Association) conference for nearly 10 years, I finally decided to take a chance and submit to present at the annual conference a few years ago.  Much to my surprise, my submission for a tongue in cheek leadership session on Captain Kirk was accepted.  Then the real work started to bring together all the free floating ideas I had on how that character demonstrated research-based leadership techniques and also to find video clips that would demonstrate those traits in a meaningful and fun way.  I tried to create a presentation that embraced the way I feel about the role of the principal…dedication to quality leadership with a healthy dose of humor.  After several months, I trimmed my material down to just over an hour presentation.  Here is an outline of the points covered in the presentation.

CELEBRATE DIVERSITY: Coming from a school with nearly 25% English Language Learners, I really felt this was important. Captain Kirk had a very diverse crew (especially for 1960’s television) and those different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds provided role models for an entire generation.  I recently had the pleasure to meet Nichelle Nicholes, who’s groundbreaking role led her to be an inspirational figure in the civil rights movement and she even received personal encouragement from Martin Luther King Jr himself, who described himself as a “huge fan”. Are we celebrating diversity at our schools and providing role models for all our students?

LET THE EXPERTS DO THEIR JOBS: As a principal, I believe in hiring the best people, training and supporting them, and then letting them do their job. Good leaders, like Captain Kirk, are competent in all areas, but are not the experts in all areas.  Spock is smarter, Scotty knows the engines better, and Sulu is the best pilot.  A good leader supports, encourages and challenges staff and then lets them do their jobs.  Are we letting our experts become leaders in the building? Are we allowing our math leaders, reading specialists, and special education staff to take charge and even facilitate at meetings?

PUSH OUT OF COMFORT ZONES: Debbie McFalone, educational consultant and speaker, talks about leaders being “warm demanders“.  Are we continuing to push staff out of comfort zones while still providing the support they need?  Are we encouraging risk-taking by modeling that trait ourselves?  Captain Kirk often leads the away missions and he knows how to push his staff and remind them of their mission when they need to be motivated.  He is a warm demander and leads by example.

TAKE RESPONSIBILITY: Captain Kirk realizes that he is responsible not only for his own actions, but also those on his ship.  Time and again, he states that he is responsible for everything aboard the Enterprise.  Are we willing to take responsibility for everything that happens in our schools?  Do we look at the data without excuses and own it?  This reminds me of choosing to look into the mirror rather than looking out the window.  Every good leader starts with asking the question, “What I can I do to make things better for our school and students?

UTILIZE TECHNOLOGY: While the technology from a 60’s television show looks pretty hokey now, at the time it was futuristic.  In fact, the creator of the mobile phone actually received his inspiration from seeing Captain Kirk use his communicator.  Captain Kirk uses a variety of technology to achieve his mission objectives.  Are we using technology in our schools to help students achieve their learning objectives?  Are our classrooms 21st Century learning environments? Through blogging and Twitter, we can connect with other educators from around the world.  It truly has been inspirational to me as a leader and in some ways makes me feel like I just started in this role, and that is exciting!

SHOW YOUR PASSION: In the video, I introduce this section with a little humor, by showing Captain Kirk in various kissing scenes. However, his true passion is for his ship.  Time and again, he shows his passion for his ship and talks about the importance of “making a difference“. Are we as passionate about our schools? Are we intentional in our actions and do we strive to do our best each and every day? Do we view our extra-curricular events, parent meetings, student lunches, and teacher meetings as items that need to be done or as opportunities to “make a difference”?

DO WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN: Perhaps my favorite thing about Captain Kirk is that he always finds a way to win. His character was actually inspired by Odysseus and Horatio Hornblower. These literary characters use their wits, charm, and perseverance to overcome all the obstacles that come before them. I share a clip in my presentation of how Captain Kirk “changes the conditions” of an impossible test in order to win. As principals, are we changing the conditions in order to do whatever it takes to make our students succeed?  That might take the form of a before or after school learning club.  It may take the form of teachers partnering to work with different learning groups and specific learning targets.  It might look different from classroom to classroom or school to school.  What’s important is that we do whatever it takes to make sure our students are successful.

This topic was my first presentation and also one of the most fun posts I have written. A while back, I shared how fun it was to meet a childhood hero when I met William Shatner in person.  However, the true heroes are the professionals in the classrooms and schools everyday working with children and doing whatever it takes to make them successful.  Now it’s your turn. You’ve taken the assignment, so go ahead and sit in the captain’s chair…but don’t sit too long!  They need you out there in the classrooms, in the hallways, on the buses, and everywhere that learning takes place. Go and be a leader, a role-model, and a risk-taker. And to all my fellow Trekkies out there: “Live Long and Prosper!



“Logic is the beginning of wisdom; not the end.” – Mr. Spock

“Risk is our business!” – Captain Kirk

“You can’t appreciate Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.” – General Chang

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