Do you know how your organization works?
I remember when my favorite line from 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan clicked into place. Twenty-four years ago, a young Captain sitting in my office at Kunsan Air Base in Korea, I received a mildly desperate phone call from my squadron commander. He had convinced another squadron commander to provide boxed lunches for our cops during an upcoming exercise. A fresh boxed lunch beat the alternative of Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) any day of the week.
As he was extracting the promise, the other commander asked for a favor: could we print a PowerPoint presentation for him in color? In the next couple of hours?
I supervised resources and training for the unit, which meant budget, supply, vehicles, weapons, ammo, all of the things needed for a few hundred defenders to secure an airbase. In those days few units had color printers, but we had one in our training section, and my boss knew this, so I told him I’d get it done. I phoned the training building, but they had gone to lunch and the deadline loomed. Under the gun, I tried a radical plan. I used the system as designed.
I drove across the base to my squadron headquarters and retrieved the vital floppy disk. Then I valiantly walked twenty whole yards, literally across a narrow street, to the audio-visual services desk at the communications squadron. “Can ya’ll print this for me?” I asked.
The airman frowned, worried that he wouldn’t provide good customer service. “You will need to fill out this form, and I won’t be able to get to it for a half hour.” Deal.
That’s when Captain Kirk’s words came back to me:
“You have to learn why things work on a starship.”
Wisdom one the big screen
The Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as one of the best Star Trek movies, chock full of iconic scenes and lines.
- In the opening scene, Kirstie Alley, appearing as a young Lieutenant Saavik in training, fails the Kobayashi Maru exercise. Later she asks Captain Kirk, the only person ever to succeed in the scenario, how he did it. She finds out that he cheated by reprogramming the exercise because, he explained, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”
- The biggest scene was Spock’s death after sacrificing himself to save the ship. He and Kirk parry back and forth, “The needs of the many…outweigh the needs of the few…or the one…” Was there ever a real Star Trek fan that didn’t tear up?
- Or how about Kirk’s primal yell, “KHAAANNNN!”
There was so much more in the movie…the slipping away of youth…the prodigal father reuniting with his son…the tear-jerker funeral…doomsday weapons…the return of sins from the past. My guiding line comes from a minor scene that you can watch on YouTube.
Kirk made a serious mistake by not following standard procedures, allowing Khan to launch a surprise attack. With the Enterprise gravely wounded. Khan demanded data files. Kirk looked up the “prefix code” for Khan’s ship and sends it over instead of the data file. Saavik doesn’t understand, so he lectures her, “You have to learn why things work on a starship.”
Over and over again in the original series, Kirk demonstrated that he knew his ship better than anyone else. Kirk understood how starships functioned. His hard-earned knowledge and experience let him hack into Kahn’s ship and lower their shields, leaving them vulnerable. Khan, though incredibly smart, doesn’t know starships. He didn’t know to change the code and didn’t know what to do when his shields magically dropped.
[Forget for a moment that starships in the 22rd century probably use some sort of quantum-entangled blockchain with 3-billion bit encryption rather than a five-digit PIN.]
Neither squadron commander in my first example knew enough about how things worked to know that the mechanism for printing materials didn’t need to involve favors. Sometimes, leaders land in jobs without relevant technical experience. Other times, processes have evolved so fast that what they learned a decade ago no longer applies.
Leaders who don’t know the details of their area’s jobs frustrate good employees. Worse, the kind of leader that assumes they know everything often deprioritizes learning.
When I have been successful as a leader and a subordinate, I took the time to understand why things work. Here’s how I try to stay abreast:
1. Review the processes. In the Air Force, that might mean taking a deep dive into regulations and instructions. The private organizations I’ve worked for also had written rules and procedures. The written documentation won’t tell you everything. It also might be ignored or simply obsolete, but that provides context for the organization as well.
2. Network with your peers in other groups. Build a network of contacts that perform different jobs. Find out what they do, what they contribute, and the nature of their challenges.
3. Call in the experts. I once had a meeting with five different flavors of accountants, each with their accounting specialty. They were all happy to help, and we were able to put together the big picture and understand why a certain disconnect occurred. We never would have found the answer without their explanations of why.
4. Listen to your team. This is the most important advice. As organizations grow, it becomes impossible to know everything. Even in a medium-sized company, there may be no one who holds all of the important information in their heads. Working with a team leverages the process knowledge, networks, and expertise of the team members and multiplies capability.
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Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.