What Star Trek Taught Me about Risk Leadership

By Erin Gloeckner

There’s not exactly a Starfleet Academy for nonprofit risk professionals, like in the beloved television and film series, Star Trek. Nonprofit risk professionals are often designated by surprise, and are expected to learn on the job, wear new hats (e.g., insurance program manager, safety committee leader, etc.), or seek out professional certifications and training outside our organizations. There are few—if any—accepted standards that nonprofit risk professionals must meet in order to be deemed effective as risk leaders. So how will you know when you reach the status of a commissioned officer, ready to traverse the stars in pursuit of knowledge… or the status of a Risk Champion, ready to traverse the realm of nonprofit stewardship in search of mission advancement?

All Risk Champions can learn from these nine poignant reminders of efficacy in risk leadership from the Star Trek universe. (Quotes source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_Original_Series)

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_Original_Series#/media/File:Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968.JPG

James T. Kirk: “All your people must learn before you can reach for the stars.” – Star Trek: The Original Series, The Gamesters of Triskelion (1968)

  • In this episode, Kirk empowers Shahna and her comrades to take their opportunity to learn about freedom and build a new life. Kirk’s sentiment rings true for nonprofit leaders who desire to help all their team members engage in risk management initiatives. Many NRMC clients have expressed the desire to inculcate or bake-in risk awareness at all levels of their organizations. To empower diverse nonprofit team members to make risk-aware decisions, nonprofit leaders must first articulate the risk-taking approach for the organization, and then provide staff with the space and decision-making authority to interpret and apply that vision. A recent RISK eNews article shared tips for nonprofit leaders who want to encourage risk-taking and risk awareness among their teams.

Dr. McCoy: “I’m a doctor, not a… [mechanic / engineer / bricklayer / escalator / coal miner / flesh peddler]!” – Star Trek: The Original Series, various episodes

  • Dr. McCoy utters many variations of this phrase in various Star Trek episodes and films; the NRMC team has heard the same from nonprofit team members who claim that they need not be involved in risk management. Most risk leaders have heard their peers and even their supervisors say things like “risk management isn’t my responsibility.” But as mentioned above, all nonprofit team members must be ready to make risk-aware decisions that bolster their missions instead of inviting in unacceptable risks. Your team members might share countless reasons why they are not willing or able to engage in your risk management program. Some Star Trek fans believe Dr. McCoy made his statements simply as a means of defending himself should his standby skills not match his core expertise as a doctor. If individuals in your organization are simply scared to start talking risk due to feelings of inadequacy or uncertainty, then empower them to engage in risk management initiatives with tips from the NRMC articles below. Also remind your peers that Dr. McCoy always came through in a pinch, just like your team will.

Spock: “On my planet, to rest is to rest — to cease using energy. To me, it is quite illogical to run up and down on green grass, using energy, instead of saving it.” – Star Trek: The Original Series, Shore Leave (1966)

  • In Spock’s words, it would be “highly illogical” to expend energy managing risks that are irrelevant to your nonprofit’s mission and objectives. In most cases, when assessing risk, you should determine the relevance of each individual risk based on its relation to your objectives. Could the risk potentially have a significant influence on one or more of your nonprofit’s goals? Will the risk potentially change or become more pressing in the near future? If a risk is stable and of little significance to your nonprofit’s objectives, then you might continue monitoring the risk while investing time and resources into managing other, more pressing risks you have identified.

Spock: “It is merely logical to try all the alternatives.” – Star Trek: The Original Series, The Galileo Seven (1967)

  • Spock is a true risk manager as he recognizes the need to anticipate and plan for every possible outcome. While investigating every possibility is easier said than done, the NRMC team highly encourages contingency planning and flexibility as key components of any risk management program. We often cite an important lesson from The Prediction Trap by Randy Park, who encourages organizational teams to develop the capacity to anticipate (not attempt to predict) multiple possible outcomes or alternate futures. Exploring and preparing for multiple possibilities enables nonprofit teams to remain resilient when surprises occur. Sometimes, with luck on your side, anticipation and contingency planning will actually help you forecast a surprise before it takes shape.

Dr. McCoy: “Does your logic find this fascinating, Mr. Spock?” Spock: “No. Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected. In this case, I should think interesting would suffice.” – Star Trek: The Original Series, The Squire of Gothos (1967)

  • Spock, king of logic, might be less surprised by uncertainty than the rest of us. While NRMC does not promote an obsessive focus on planning for worst-case scenarios, we do urge nonprofit leaders to ready themselves for surprises by expanding their opinions of what is possible. Disbelief or lack of imagination can cause nonprofit leaders to ignore circumstances that will later bubble up into catastrophes. Sadly, a common example of this failure of imagination is the reluctance to believe that abuse could potentially occur within a nonprofit organization—even in one with a humble, dedicated, kindhearted team behind it. Another common example is fraud occurring within an organization, which is sometimes overlooked when certain individuals are not subjected to customary screening, supervision, or suspicion. Spock reminds us that skilled risk leaders purposefully explore the unexpected—and even the unbelievable and the unbearable.

James T. Kirk: “Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing.” – Star Trek: The Original Series, The Trouble with Tribbles (1967)

  • The seemingly cute and harmless Tribbles soon became a nuisance as they continued to replicate and flood the Enterprise. Just as too many Tribbles can swamp a space mission, both extreme risk-aversion and callous risk-taking can spell trouble for your nonprofit’s mission. Defining your nonprofit’s risk appetite can help your strike a balance, ensuring that your team members are taking the right amount of risk in order to advance your mission, one Tribble at a time. To learn more about risk appetite, review this debrief from an NRMC risk appetite exercise.

Dr. McCoy: “Compassion: that’s the one things no machine ever had. Maybe it’s the one thing that keeps men ahead of them.” – Star Trek: The Original Series, The Ultimate Computer (1968)

  • It’s often tempting to take compassion out of risk management, or—like our favorite Vulcan, Spock—take all emotion out of risk management. Many nonprofit leaders desire to conduct quantitative risk management, assigning numeric scores and priority rankings to any risks they have identified. While prioritization is essential in deciding where to focus your risk management energy, quantifying risks is often challenging and may result in arbitrary scores that mean little and represent only a guesstimate at a specific point in time. Some NRMC clients have moved away from quantitative risk assessment, instead opting to assess risks from the perspective of their key stakeholders. These clients ask themselves: “If we fail to properly manage this risk, how might our clients and community members be affected?” and “If we take on this risk that has potential to boost our programs/revenue/brand, how might it affect our reputation?” Risk management thought leader Woods Bowman wrote in his book Finance Fundamentals for Nonprofits, that “…the risks of a nonprofit are borne by the people it serves (its clients), who have neither a voice in selecting the organization’s leadership nor the ability to manage the risks.” Woods and Dr. McCoy agree that one thing keeping nonprofit leaders ahead of the game is their ability to steward their organizations upon a foundation of compassion.

James T. Kirk: “Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on.” – Star Trek: The Original Series, A Taste of Armageddon (1967)

  • In my five or so years as a risk consultant to nonprofit teams, I have learned that sometimes a feeling is all we risk leaders have to go on. Ultimately, when we make decisions about the risks we wish to take—or the risks we strive to guard against—we must choose what we feel is right. Risk Champions never lose sight of the mission and reputation of their organizations; these are the north stars for decision-making. If you have no other information to go on, go with your gut and do what you believe is right for your mission and stakeholders.

The Borg: “You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.” Star Trek: The Next Generation, Best of Both Worlds (1990)

  • We had to throw in one quote from The Next Generation. The terrifying Borg hive reminds us that there is no way to fully control or prevent risk; resistance to risk is futile. Nonprofit leaders must embrace risk and uncertainty in every aspect of their roles and their organizations. In my mind, the primary role of a risk manager is not to prevent or manage downside risks or threats; instead, a risk manager focuses on transforming downside risks into opportunities or silver linings for the nonprofit. Risk management and risk-taking should result in positive rewards to a nonprofit’s mission. In this Star Trek episode, Data smartly turned an imminent crisis into a pleasant nap when he realized that turning its own sleep protocols against it could destroy the seemingly invincible Borg collective.

If you’re seeking your own risk-centric version of Starfleet Academy, consider joining the NRMC team and other nonprofit risk leaders at the upcoming Risk Summit. Your organization might be an Affiliate Member of NRMC, in which case, you are eligible for a 25% discount on Risk Summit registration.

For intensive, intimate training with a small cohort of experienced nonprofit risk professionals, apply to join our Fall Risk Leadership Certificate Program (RLCP). Our RLCP crewmembers are in love with risk management, in the same way that “Trekkies” are diehard Star Trek fans.

With respect to nonprofit management and mission stewardship, risk leaders—like the gallant crew of the starship Enterprise… or Voyager… or Defiant—are the champions who lead their teams “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Go forth, Risk Champions, and boldly take mission-advancing risks that no one has taken before.

Erin Gloeckner is the former director of consulting services at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. NRMC welcomes your thoughts about risk leadership and Star Trek at 703.777.3504 or info@nonprofitrisk.org. Live long and prosper, RISK eNews readers!