In the “Star Trek: The Original Series” episode “The Man Trap,” we discover that trust, intuition, and understanding aren’t just vital for space exploration – they’re leadership essentials in any universe!
This article continues our series on leadership lessons inspired by the legendary Star Trek Original Series (see the introductory article for context).
In “The Man Trap,” the first episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series,” the USS Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk, visits planet M-113 for a routine medical checkup of archaeologist Professor Robert Crater and his wife, Nancy. They both live alone on this planet. McCoy (a.k.a. “Bones”) knows Nancy from a past romantic relationship and is also part of the landing party. Upon arrival, the crew encounters Nancy, but each member sees her differently: McCoy sees the Nancy he once knew, Kirk sees her as an aging woman, and Crewman Darnell sees her as a different, attractive girl. Nancy lures Darnell away, and he is later found dead, with mysterious red marks on his face and all the salt drained from his body.
As the crew investigates the mysterious death, further members of the landing party die in a similar way. Eventually, it turns out that the real Nancy has long been dead, and the woman initially thought to be Nancy is an alien creature capable of taking any form. This creature is the last of its kind and needs salt to survive. It can drain the salt from a human in a matter of seconds, which kills the attacked person instantly.
The creature, desperately looking for salt, takes the shape of a crew member that the creature just killed and boards the Enterprise. It continues deceiving and killing further crew members. The alien shifts its appearance several times, including into McCoy’s form, trying to evade capture.
When the creature, disguised as McCoy, is trying to kill Captain Kirk, the real McCoy arrives on the scene, who is still unsure if he sees Nancy or an alien disguised as Nancy. Just before Kirk is about to be killed, McCoy shoots and kills the creature. At this moment, the creature reverts to its true, ugly form.
It turns out that Professor Crater was aware of the creature’s true nature but kept it a secret. He supplied it with the necessary salt for its survival. Essentially, he was deceiving himself to cope with loneliness in exchange for the companionship of the creature who was miming his deceased wife.
Three Lessons Learned
The relation to the leadership lessons learned is not immediately apparent since Captain Kirk is not the central character in this episode. Thus, he cannot serve as a demonstration of his leadership skills. Instead, it is McCoy, the Chief Medical Officer on the USS Enterprise, and the rest of the team who resolve the crisis. There are several lessons we can learn from this episode:
Know Your Team: A deep understanding of your team members is essential to minimize the risk of unpleasant surprises. If a team member’s behavior unexpectedly changes, it’s important to understand the reasons behind the shift.
Effective leadership is only possible with this deep trust and understanding of your team.
Use Logic, Ignore Appearances: The alien, disguised as friendly or attractive team members, used this ability to deceive and kill several crew members. Although Captain Kirk had presumably met McCoy’s fiancée, Nancy, years before, he placed trust over logic, ignoring the implausible appearance of Nancy, who seems not to have aged.
True leadership demands an unbiased, objective approach, setting aside personal predispositions and appearances. Neglecting this fundamental principle can result in costly consequences.
Trust Your Intuition: Captain Kirk noticed the alien, masquerading as McCoy, failed to respond to McCoy’s nickname, “Bones.” Despite sensing something odd, Kirk hesitated to act on his intuition immediately, tragically costing another crew member’s life and nearly his own. Intuition is an essential leadership trait. In leaders, trusting one’s intuition is crucial. If your intuition hints at an anomaly, you should follow it up until proven otherwise.
While the concept of teamwork is sometimes overly glorified, in truth, an effective team is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Leaders are only successful when standing on the shoulders of proverbial giants—your team members. You can only lead if you have trusted followership.
As a side note, I can’t help but be struck by the frequency with which crew members die in Star Trek episodes. In a real-world scenario, even in the distant future, such situations would likely result in more consequential repercussions. This would likely include in-depth investigations to identify the root causes and result in the punishment of the team leaders involved. But I digress…
I am a project manager (Project Manager Professional, PMP), a Project Coach, a management consultant, and a book author. I have worked in the software industry since 1992 and as a manager consultant since 1998. Please visit my United Mentors home page for more details. Contact me on LinkedIn for direct feedback on my articles.