Warp Factor Trek

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You reminded us of what we are to each other… that’s leadership.” — Sylvia Tilly

One of the most important things to have in a crisis is strong leadership. Whether that crisis is a worldwide pandemic or the DMA, many people look to leaders for strength, courage, wisdom, and guidance. I have been reflecting upon the many styles of leadership demonstrated in the Discovery episode “Kobayashi Maru”.

In “Choose to Live”, Admiral Vance poetically explains the tiers of leadership in Starfleet and the Federation as if they constitute an orchestra. Burnham is the first violin, a flashy, showy role, performing solos. Vance is the percussion, keeping things steady, providing the beat. President Rillak is the conductor, who knows how the entire symphony should be performed, how each musician should be playing, and how to hold that performance together. The diverse voices of the instruments mirror the different styles of leadership.

First Violin: Captain Burnham

Book and Burnham, on an away mission together (CBS-Paramount)

The symphony is the rebuilding of the Federation. “Kobayashi Maru” opens with a “violin duet” between Captain Burnham and Book. The theme is building trust by diplomacy, by reaching out instead of striking back, and this is a theme that will build throughout the season and come to a crescendo in “…But to Connect”.

Burnham in command (CBS-Paramount)

Burnham’s leadership here shows that she has learned hard lessons since the Battle of the Binary Stars. Taking everything that she has learned since then, she has taken the center seat of Discovery to lead the disparate worlds of the known galaxy toward a peaceful cooperation. The Burn destroyed the essential connections between the worlds; Burnham is leading the effort to rebuild those connections.

But her lessons in leadership are only beginning. Burnham – in the absence of Georgiou, Saru, and her mother Gabrielle – is in need of someone to mentor her. Just as the conductor would correct a musician for improper playing or imprecise interpretation of the score, so the President of the Federation recognizes, through Burnham’s actions, that she has not learned balance in leadership yet and calls Burnham out on her failures of leadership.

Burnham and Federation President Rillak (CBS-Paramount)

One of the truest marks of a good leader is the ability to accept constructive criticism and learn from it, and to realize we might not have the whole picture. Burnham’s childish pettiness, in response to Rillak’s correction – a sign she has a long way to grow – does not deter Rillak from speaking the truth she needs to hear:

There is a very fine line between a pendulum and the wrecking ball. Commanding from a place of personal need places others in harm’s way.

But who is Rillak, anyway?

Orchestra Conductor: President Rillak

UFP President Rillak (CBS-Paramount)

If anyone can lead this fractured and newly reforming Federation (defended and led by Starfleet) back to the original mission of peaceful and scientific exploration, it is Rillak. Her very existence, as part Human, part Bajoran, part Cardassian, is testament to the fact that even the deepest wounds can be healed and the most grievous wrongs made right.

Yet, it is not simply her heritage that qualifies her to lead; her own experience has uniquely shaped and prepared her for her position. She spent years running freight for her father in post-Burn space. Because of the dilithium shortage, cargo-running would be even more difficult than the conditions Travis Mayweather grew up with.

Those years taught her many things that she brings to her presidency: how to connect with others and remind them of home; how not to ask anyone under her leadership for a sacrifice she herself would not make; how to accept all potential outcomes of command decisions; and how to make the hard call. She has learned that leadership is about balance, about discerning what is the leaders’ to carry and what is not, and about the ability to assess character. She brings all this to her own presidency.

Art Director: President T’Rina

Ni’Var President T’Rina (CBS-Paramount)

Another influential leader is the President of Ni’Var, T’Rina. She acknowledges that the current crisis requires all to contribute. She offers the services of her people to help solve the mystery of the DMA, and she cautions that the crisis may reopen old wounds caused by the Burn. She exemplifies excellent leadership by listening to all her constituents and addressing their concerns, and by leading her world back into the mutual cooperation of the Federation, for the good of all.

Singer and Second Violin: Captain Saru

Under Saru’s leadership, Kaminar once again reaches for the stars. Saru reminds his people of their interconnectedness and encourages them not to hide away in isolationism, not to curl inward like a leaf, but to reach outward toward galactic unity.

Saru looking towards Burnham (CBS-Paramount)

Yet, Saru’s leadership is also needed aboard the Discovery, and just as Spock did many years before, Saru takes joy in leading by playing second violin to Captain Burnham, and supporting her leadership. He knows when to roar… but he also knows when to offer insight, when to shut down a dangerous experiment, and when to impart gentle wisdom.

Percussion: Admiral Vance

Vance is a self-proclaimed old salt who comes across as a hardliner but who is all marshmallow underneath. His integrity shone through in the last season’s finale, when he would not compromise with Osyrra’s corruption, even to make peace. He leads with the hard won wisdom of a person who has made the wrong call many times, lived to regret it, and wishes to spare those under his command some of those regrets.

Admiral Vance and President Rillak (CBS-Paramount)

Vance nudges Burnham to move past her prejudice against Rillak, reminding her, “An adept politician can be a powerful tool when the world feels upside down.” Unlike the other leaders, who travel all over the galaxy, his leadership requires him to hold the fort at Starfleet Command and be the steadying presence in the background, keeping the other leaders on the beat.


There are many ways to be a good leader, and every leadership style is as essential to the function of the Federation, as each individual instrument is to the orchestra. Together, they are playing a symphony of peace, connection, and unity.

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