In recognition of Leonard Nimoy’s recent passing, I decided to write on an underlying tension I see in most companies that require technical experience, that is the tension between our Spocks and our Kirks.
The Captain Kirk world is made up of swashbuckling heroes of capitalism who defy the odds and take bold chances only to find immeasurable success:
(Maybe this guy comes to mind?)
The Spock is more complicated and usually exists in our fascination with someone who is awkward but super smart and finds unparalleled success even when his personal charms are lacking:
(“Hi there, I’m rich. Let’s talk education reform.”)
The trouble with how we look at this dynamic today (especially it seems in the tech world) is that we are constantly making the case that you can only be one or the other. The genius of the Star Trek series is in the fact that Spock and Kirk are constantly learning from each other and having an impact on each other, which helps their improbable friendship grow and for their own selves to develop more deeply.
Too much Spock:
One of the characteristics of a “Spock” is that he is often times arrogant in his assertion of intellectual superiority. This is what drives the character Bones crazy, the complete confidence that Spock has in his own intellect and his reasoning. When someone in a meeting is pulling a “Spock,” it can cause many people in the room to react like Bones, especially if they don’t have the same level of deep analytical ability.
There is something about that detached level of certainty that makes most normal people feel like they just want to argue with them, or worse, that they just don’t like them. This is a problem if your company is depending on your “Spock” to be the smartest and the best leader through some challenging times.
Too much Kirk:
The trouble with too many Kirk’s in the world is that they tend to get
board bored when following the rules. This is why I imagine that many of the Kirk’s that we know in business tend to be entrepreneurs because that way they get to make up their own rules. The interesting thing about Star Trek is that Kirk is a captain in a quasi-military and he seems to get along pretty well. So, what is the danger of a Kirk in your organization?
Well, they tend to be a little hot-headed and rash. We are attracted to the Kirks in the general media because they do bold and big things.
Elon Musk is an example of a Spock-like guy who behaves like a Captain Kirk
(Because he has the intelligence and the balls to try to do this)
And Musk is constantly being caught between two narratives. Is he the bold maverick who doesn’t care about the rules, or is he a brilliant engineer who is only following science to logical conclusions?
If we are going to move forward in our ability to innovate and to integrate new ideas and discoveries, then we are going to have to let go of an outdated duality that no longer serves us.
One of the hallmarks of Star Trek is how the two main characters have a profound impact on one another over time. Spock becomes increasingly more spontaneous and empathetic, while Kirk takes on Spock’s logical thinking. The genius of this storyline is that Roddenberry seemed to be saying that Reason and Passion are not an either/or proposition, which is something that we have been battling since the age of enlightenment.
So, what does this have to do with you?
If we can recognize the value of both characters, then we can stop making the absurd case that you need to be one or the other. Spock’s ability to be more persuasive and Kirk’s ability to be more logical only stand to help them both accomplish their mutual goals.
If you are more like Spock:
1. Develop empathy.
Recognize that being disconnected from your emotions has a deleterious effect on your ability to communicate. If you don’t know how you feel, then you can’t imagine how someone else might feel.
2. Understand your non-verbals
Become aware that your body and your tone of voice (if closed and tonally numb) will suggest negative signals to the people you are trying to persuade. Keep your body open and your voice warm (like a storyteller) so that you can communicate your passion as well as your knowledge.
3. Be non-judgmental
Nobody cares how smart you are. Unless you have something that is so obvious that it speaks for itself, your ability to be someone trustworthy and likeable will be important to people hearing your point and agreeing with you. When you speak didactically or in a condescending tone, you will turn people off and they will not listen to what you have to say.
If you are more like Kirk:
1. Be patient
One of the biggest problems for the Kirk’s of the world is that they are incredibly impatient. No one moves fast enough for them because most people are afraid of making mistakes while Kirk is excited by risk. Be someone that they would want to follow, rather than a reckless pirate.
2. Listen better
One of the best improvements in the JJ Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise is the inclusion of Kirk as a young hot-head who doesn’t listen. The lesson he learns is that listening is a way to communicate trust and to inspire others to greatness. When we disregard or discount others by not listening, we lose their faith in our ability to lead them.
3. Explain better
Most Kirks in the world see things so clearly in their head that it can be frustrating for them to have to explain them to others. S. S. McClure was famously a big thinker who needed John Sanborn Phillips to help him shape his ideas. It doesn’t matter if you have the clearest vision in the world if you can’t take the time to articulate it well enough for others to hear it and act on it.
Embrace and balance your Spocks and your Kirks.