On the blog this month, we’re exploring risk: how it shows up in our personal and professional lives, the roles it plays in leadership, and lessons we can learn from it. Today, through the lens of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we look at what it truly takes to take a risk: trust.
Long before Jean-Luc Picard is abducted from the Enterprise by a team of ashen-skinned, groupthink-loving cyborgs, the captain of Starfleet’s galaxy-class flagship knew the Borg were bad news. He and the Next Generation crew learned this from Q, a godlike, highly advanced (if fickle and mischievous) alien who flung their ship willy-nilly thousands of lightyears across space to prove the Federation’s naiveté and unpreparedness to truly explore the outer reaches of the universe.
But glimpsing the Borg’s “big baddie-ness” in a midseason B story and facing off against an assimilated crewmate in a season-ending cliffhanger are two very different things. In the former, we encounter an entirely new species and experience the Borg through the eyes of Captain Picard, with equal parts wonder, caution, and curiosity (at least, at first). In the latter, we engage an enemy, one which makes Picard its avatar, and we are forced to battle ally and adversary combined with Enterprise First Officer William Riker at the helm.
In “The Best of Both Worlds,” Riker is really going through it. He’s just been offered (and passed on) a commission to captain his own ship. He gets a short lecture and a kick in the butt from Picard to not pass up such an opportunity. And he meets Lieutenant Commander Shelby, who makes no bones about gunning for his position on the Enterprise. On top of that, the Borg have obliterated an outpost at the edge of Federation space and, when the Enterprise intercepts them, they abduct Picard, intent to use his knowledge of Starfleet in assimilating all of humanity. Oh, and the Borg’s technology is vastly superior to the Federation’s, so neither the Enterprise’s defenses nor its warp capabilities can keep up.
As far as star dates go, those are a few bad days.
Amid all this, Riker’s inner conflict centers around the uncomfortable realization that maybe he plays it too safe in life and work. He questions his own ambition; he reevaluates what he finds meaningful; and he rediscovers how to listen to his gut.
This is where it gets interesting for us in our exploration of risk. We’ve talked about the interplay of safety and purpose. We’ve identified the intersecting factors that power healthy risk. Now, let’s examine how risk is built on a foundation of trust.
In business, it’s unlikely that an organization will take a risk if the people who make up that organization don’t trust its leaders. By the same token, no leader will inspire the creativity and effort that lead to innovation and success without trusting their team. Finally, risk demands confidence. And where confidence falls short, faith. When it comes to taking a leap, leaders must look inward to source the courage to do the necessary.
How Trust Enabled the Risk That Saved Humanity From the Borg
Riker trusts his team.
Throughout the two-part episode, Riker consults with the bridge crew, i.e., his senior leadership team, to gather intel, posit ideas, and devise next steps as the dire situation unfolds. Not only that, he also takes Commander Shelby’s tactical analysis of the Borg under advisement, despite their clash of personalities, and even looks to junior officer Wesley Crusher for his input and insight. But the most compelling instances of Riker’s trust in his team come from two interactions with Deanna Troi, a senior officer, Riker’s close friend and former lover, and the ship’s counselor.
Early in the first episode, when Captain Picard urges Riker to reconsider passing on the captain’s commission, Riker meets up with Troi and gives voice to some of his internal confusion. “What am I still doing here?” he asks, wondering why he’s content to be first in command instead of just in command. “Maybe I’m just afraid of the big chair.” He values her perspective as someone who knows him well, who knows the situation, and who can offer valuable feedback.
Later, when Riker calls for an away team to board the Borg vessel and rescue Picard, he assigns Shelby the bridge, and it’s Troi who reminds him that a captain—even an acting captain—shouldn’t lead an away team. “You’re in command of the ship” she says. “We’re in a state of war, and your place is on the bridge.” He may not have sought her counsel, but he heeds it. He reassigns Shelby to lead the rescue mission and takes his place in the captain’s chair, his trust in Troi complete.
The crew trusts Riker.
With Captain Picard assimilated into the Borg collective, effectively making him a casualty of war in the eyes of Starfleet, Riker is officially promoted to the role of captain. He has inherited the mantle he’d been avoiding. In a quiet moment of contemplation, as the Enterprise travels to join the fleet attempting to prevent the Borg vessel from reaching Earth, the weight of the commission becomes apparent. “What would you do?” he asks of Picard’s empty chair.
In that moment, Guinan, the sage-like bartender of the ship’s lounge, arrives at the captain’s ready room. From her vantage point in Ten-Forward, she has heard many of the ship’s thousand or so crew members and their families share their thoughts and fears about the impending battle. “They like you. They trust you,” she tells him. “But you’re going to have to do something you don’t want to do. You have to let go of Picard.”
It’s interesting that the creators of the series chose this direction. There’s no mutiny on the Enterprise when Riker is named captain. There’s no shock or disbelief or show of protest. Not a single crew member voices opposition, no order of his is second-guessed. There’s just Guinan, who tells him plainly: they trust you.
And it’s this assurance of faith in him by his crew that gives Riker the push he needs to dig deep and find the intestinal fortitude to risk it all.
Riker trusts himself.
Arriving at the rendezvous point, we learn that the fleet, humanity’s last line of defense, has been decimated, and the Borg are heading directly for Earth. The stakes could not be higher: One man, one ship, outmatched against a superior enemy, while the fate of the human race hangs in the balance.
As the Enterprise gives chase, Riker directs Shelby to prepare her plan of separating the saucer and engineering sections of the ship—a plan, Shelby reminds him, that Picard knew and, now fully assimilated, will have shared with the Borg. “I’m aware of that, Commander,” he responds. “In fact, I’m counting on it.”
This is our first indication that Captain Riker has a plan of his own, and what follows is Riker stepping into his command, owning his position at the helm of the Enterprise. He hails the Borg vessel, buying time so the crew can track Picard’s location. Then he sends Worf and Data on a covert mission: retrieve the captain.
We enter the final moments of the third act with Riker primed to access the Borg hive mind, hopeful of saving Picard and separating the man from the machine, and willing to risk (and likely sacrifice) the Enterprise and its crew if those efforts fail in order to prevent the Borg attack.
The Best of Both Worlds
Trust and risk go hand in hand. As a leader, you have to be willing to do the hard thing, to make the difficult decision, to have faith. It’s on you to understand the needs of your crew, to weigh the costs of any risk to them and to yourself, to seek out advisors in whom you have confidence—and then have confidence in them. So often, risk is seen as a solo act, but it’s actually communal in nature.
Riker was only able to rescue the captain, stop the Borg, and save humanity because he trusted the counsel of his senior officers, he earned the trust of his crew, and, ultimately, he found the courage to trust himself.
It may be the mission of every crew member on the starship Enterprise to boldly go where no one has gone before, but every leader knows that when you boldly go, you never go alone.