So I was asked to speak at Ignite this year, about my ideas on nerd culture. Ignite is a short format speaking event held in different cities. I said yes, thinking it would be fun, and it was. The only tough thing is that your slides change automatically every 15 seconds, you don’t control them, which means you can’t really adjust well for things like laughter. Fortuantly, when I walked out on stage, they played the WRONG SLIDE DECK! It was the deck that I had put together for a format practice run (to make sure they looked OK on the screen.) My actual deck turned out to be completely different, so I got a bit of a surprise when I walked out on stage to a deck that I hadn’t practiced on… ever.
There have been many great and memorable fictional leaders in my life: Kathryn Janeway, Kermit the Frog, and Jedediah Bartlett are instantly called to my mind. People (and frogs) like these are figures I can look to for inspiration. Their character, values, and managerial styles all contain qualities to which we can all aspire. But one mythical leader towers above all others in my admiration: Jean-Luc Picard.
I am not alone in my love of this nerd icon. Blog posts abound with the tales of his heroic deeds, suave manner, and gleaming, sexy head.The giants of the business publishing world fill column inches with click-baity “top ten” lists about Picard’s management philosophies. There is also some pretty strange fanfiction out there.
So there’s no reason for me not to jump on the bandwagon in celebrating June 16th as Picard Day! I will do this in the great Internet tradition of writing a list (because it’s easy), and telling you six things about Captain Jean-Luc; three things you should know and three things that are entirely unnecessary.
1. What is Picard Day?
In Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG for short), Season 7, Episode 12 (S07E12) titled “The Pegasus,” all the children on the Enterprise (the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D to be specific, and Enterprise-D for short) throw a celebration in honor of the captain. Deanna Troi explains that this is because the children look up to him as a role model. Fair enough.
I believe that the teachers do this because they know it annoys Picard, and they know that one of his few faults is his distaste for children. Picard is an idealized figure and must come across as fairly uptight to those not under his direct supervision. I’m surprised that there are not more events like this in the show, where there are subtle attempts to force cracks in the steely veneer of principles and high cheekbones.
Picard Day in the show is written as a cute, humanizing scene before the episode plunges into a story about espionage, death, disloyalty, and how creepy the dad from That 70’s Show can be… but that’s another blog.
Outside of the show, Picard Day is when TNG fans celebrate the greatest fictional commander in all of literary history (yeah, I said it!) at least in this sector of the galaxy.
2. Picard’s Power Base
Star Trek TNG was written to be set in a more utopian human future than its predecessor. That means less curse words like “dammit” and “hell,” and the addition of even loftier ideals. That put a lot of pressure on the captain character to be an exemplary human being who still ran a tight ship. Fortunately, the writers of TNG knew a thing or two about power bases. Picard leads through both referent power and expert power. Referent power comes from being trusted and respected, whereas expert power comes from skills or knowledge. Leaders who are able to display both can be extremely effective. Jean-Luc clearly has the respect of the crew due to fairness and consistency, but we sometimes forget how well he understands the technical details of his ship. In “Disaster” (S05E05), we get to watch Jean-Luc save a group of children, stranded in a turbo-life, using his intimate knowledge of the wiring schematics of minor ship subsystems. We are also reminded of how much he dislikes children.
3. The Picard Maneuver
Many nerds will talk of the Picard Maneuver being a tactic where you aim your ship directly at another ship and then engage your highest level of warp so that it briefly appears that you are in two places at once. The real Picard Maneuver, however, is the motion of adjusting your shirt after you stand up so that it’s not all bunchy on the bottom.
4. He leads through trust
“You have the bridge” might be used second only to “Tea, Earl Grey, hot” in Captain Picard’s dialog. Jean-Luc hands over command to his crew frequently and with absolute confidence. He has built an amazing culture of trust among his officers. Trust is something very difficult to articulate, but there are two dimensions of trust that TNG gets right.
The first dimension is “Trust in Principles.” The crew of the Enterprise-D are on the same page when it comes to their mission and their intentions. Captain Picard has modeled how to show respect to his fellow officers, how to engage in task conflict, how to praise and reward members of his crew, and how to stand up for what is right. In one of my favorite scenes in all of Star Trek (S07E04 – Gambit, Part 1), Data is temporarily made captain while Worf becomes his first officer. Tensions rise and Data and Worf argue about how to settle disagreements on the bridge. However, the dispute is rapidly resolved when they both agree how Picard and Riker would handle the same situation, modeled for them hundreds of times by experienced leaders.
“Performance Trust” is the second pillar of trust. This is the concept that you need to be able to know that your team will be able to accomplish the actual tasks they are given. Performance trust is probably much simpler in a world of standardized starship equipment, promotions and ranks, and Starfleet academy testing. That said, Picard encourages mutual and ongoing performance trust among his crew by being consistent and fair in his praise and feedback of their duties. He keeps an open door policy to his ready room, and actually makes changes when his staff come to him with concerns.
5. The Picard Facepalm
The facepalm that spawned a thousand memes comes from TNG S03E13, “Déjà Q.” The facepalm in the actual footage is as fleeting as the movement of Muhammad Ali’s fist over Sonny Liston’s semiconcious body. In both situations, the image has become massively more powerful than the video. In the episode, Picard is simply exasperated and a little annoyed that Q, a godlike being and constant annoyance, has been made human and sent to the Enterprise-D. That’s pretty much it.
6. Leadership Through Clarity
Picard and his writers understood the most important thing about leadership: Clarity. Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Temptations of a CEO” is required reading for anyone in a position of power, and the book’s arguably most important “temptation” is “Clarity over Certainty.” This describes the tendency of executives to focus on being sure about a decision, rather than clearly understanding and articulating why they are making a decision. Captain Picard is a leader with an almost superhuman reservoir of clarity. He is able to passionately articulate the reasons WHY any command has been given at any point. He can speak to the philosophy behind a value that led to the mission that informed the decision that enabled the command just given. His clear understanding of his own convictions and values, as well as those of The Federation in general, make him the leader that he is. Just watch the Captain (in “The First Duty“ S05E19) explain to the eternally annoying Wesley Crusher how the first duty of an officer is always to the truth.
Star Trek can be very silly sometimes. Fans can be even sillier when they idolize the show and its characters to an unhealthy degree. But we should still remember that Star Trek TNG at its core is not a science fiction show; it’s a morality drama. Jean-Luc Picard sits at the head of this modern morality play as a vessel for the most aspirational ideals of not just leadership, but almost every type of human value the writers could pour into him. Star Trek is nerdy and silly, sure — but from an inspirational perspective, Gene Roddenberry can outwrite Peter Drucker any day.
Finally, if anyone out there is inspired by this post to watch the show Star Trek: Picard on Paramount+, please, please, please don’t. It is a sloppy, meaningless, morally bankrupt mess, and is mainly about explosions and ninjas (yes, I’m serious). I would rewatch a thousand episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise while being forced to say, “I see five lights” when I can clearly see four, before I ever subject myself to one more minute of Star Trek: Picard.