Compliance Leadership Lessons From Captain Kirk

by Thomas Fox

Captain KirkAs readers of this blog know, I am an über Star Trek maven. Last week, in Episode 41 of  my podcast, the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report,  I visited with John Champion, one of the co-hosts of the Mission Log podcast. Mission Log will eventually review all of the Star Trek television episodes and movie franchise entries. John and his co-host Ken Ray began their journey summer of 2012 and have managed to get through all 79 episodes of the original Star Trek television series. They will next turn to the Star Trek movies, the animated television series, then to Star Trek – The Next Generation and on down the line of the world built by Gene Roddenberry.

I met John at the NMX Annual Conference earlier this year. I heard him talking about his podcast and checked it out. I also asked him if I could interview him for my podcast, specifically on the leadership lessons that a compliance practitioner might draw from the original captain of the Enterprise, James T. Kirk. John graciously took time out of busy schedule to visit with me on leadership, Star Trek and his podcast, Mission Log.

Champion views the leadership style of Captain Kirk as one that greatly depends on the inputs from the group that surrounds him; specifically Lt. Commander Spock and the ship’s physician, Dr. Leonard McCoy (Bones). In other words, his senior management team. More insightfully, Champion noted that it is the interplay of these three characters, Kirk, Spock and McCoy that not only makes the television series work so well but it also informs what he termed the “leadership psyche” of ethos, pathos and logos.

In the Greek world, these three were believed to be the key to successful leadership. Ethos is the Greek word for ‘character’. Through ethos, a leader stands as an authority figure, through credibility, competence and/or special expertise. Pathos is the Greek word for both ‘suffering’ and ‘experience’. It is generally recognized as the more compassionate side of humanity. Logos generally refers to the more rational side of humans. The best definition I have found for logos is on the site,, which says that “Logos is the Greek word for “word,” however the true definition goes beyond that, and can be most closely described as that by which the inward thought is expressed and the inward thought itself”.

In the original Star Trek all three of these traits are identified in one character. Kirk, the ship’s captain, is the authoritarian figure. Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan subscribes to the Vulcan ideology of suppressing one’s emotions in favor of logic. Finally, Bones is the romantic of the three and clearly speaks for the Greek concept of pathos. Champion’s dissection of Kirk’s leadership is that he takes all three of these concepts and uses them in his analysis. While clearly, at the end of the day, the decisions are the final responsibility of Kirk, he does actively seek input from his trusted advisors before coming to his final choice.

For the compliance practitioner, this means that you should seek a wide variety of inputs for your decision-making calculus. The Machiavellian trait of seeking trusted advise from experienced advisors, (Subject Matter Experts – SMEs) is certainly in play here. But by incorporating these three very different concepts into the way you might think through an issue can help you to evaluate a greater range of considerations. Monitoring, auditing and similar oversight techniques can bring you the logical examinations through data. But data is, in the final analysis, a product of human actions so the data must be read with some measure of humanity or human character. Values are not numbers but how we assign actions to that raw data? Finally, the ethos must be taken into account. Obviously there must be an ethical component to any decision made, but ethos also speaks to the character of the decision. Was the decision made using all the facts that were, or should have been, available to the decision-maker?

I thought about Champion’s remarks when I read the New York Times (NYT) Corner Office column by Adam Bryant, entitled “When Ideas Collide, Don’t Duck”. In this article, Bryant reported on his interview with Jeff Lawson, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Twillio, a cloud communications company. Lawson spoke about all three Greek leadership concepts in both his education in being a company head. From the ethos perspective, he spoke about his grandfather who built and sold a hardware company in Detroit. Then in his 70s, his grandfather took a job as a manufacturer’s representative, selling paint accessories to hardware stores that had previously been his competitors. His grandfather did this for another 20 years and when he died, Lawson said, “The Owner of every hardware store in Detroit came to the funeral. It was amazing.”

Lawson had another insight, which related to pathos and it revolved around feedback. He said, “This is especially important with millennial workers, who really want feedback. They want to always be learning, always be growing, and they’re looking for that constant feedback. It’s not that they’re looking for constant praise, but rather they want to keep score. They want to know how they’re doing.  Part of it is the short cycle of Internet feedback, and people who grew up with the Internet just expect quick feedback on things. That’s just part of the changing ethos, especially with younger workers. If you get into the habit of regular feedback, it’s not confrontational; it’s just the ebb and flow of conversation and a constant tweaking of how you work with somebody.”

Lawson incorporates the logos concept into his leadership set as well. He does this in the context of empowering employees to come up with new ideas but requires these employees to validate them to move forward. He said, “A lot of our values are about empowering employees. “Draw the owl” is a favorite. It’s based on the Internet meme of how to draw an owl. It says: “Step 1, draw some circles. Step 2, draw the rest of the owl.” That’s what it takes to be an entrepreneur — you have to put aside all the reasons you think you can’t do something or figure it out. Our job is to come in every day and take a vague problem that we don’t know how to solve and figure out the solution.”

Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? I am never too sure. But from my chat with John Champion, it is clear that even such a cultural marvel as Captain James T. Kirk can provide leadership lessons for the compliance practitioner.

If you have not yet done so, I hope you will go over and check out my podcasts at the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report. I am up to Episode 41 and should have a couple more up this week.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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Thomas Fox

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