Leader vs Manager vs Coach: Lessons from Star Trek, the Next Generation

by Bhavesh

The TV series Star Trek, the Next Generation is used to demonstrate key lessons about what it means to be a leader vs manager vs coach (sometimes known as a teacher or a guide).

You don't have to be a fan of the cult-classic television series, Star Trek, the Next Generation, to appreciate these key lessons on what it means to be a leader, a manager or a coach.

We use a few of the main characters and some frequent visitors of the show to draw important distinctions among these key roles in any business, organization, or a social cause.

Don't forget to watch the short video clips, say your piece in the debate and share your insights at the end of the article!

Is a Coach the Same Thing as a Teacher or a Guide?

A clarification

Which image comes to mind when you think of the word "coach?" Do you see the coach of a professional sports team angrily running back and forth at the sidelines of a sports stadium? It may not be fair, but that's image that came to my mind when I first heard the words "business coach."

The term "business coach" most likely comes from the world of sports. However, you may agree that today's knowledge-work is more cognitive than physical and has little to do with sports. That's why, I think that business performance is less about actions and more about aligned action.

I prefer the term "teacher" or "guide" to "coach." A teacher or a guide helps a person come in touch with her deepest essence. A teacher also helps us align our thinking, feeling and acting with that essence and, in the process, helps us unlock our energies towards taking the right and more meaningful actions. That's what I mean when I use the term "teacher" in this article, which I have used interchangeably with "coach."

What Does a Business Coach Do?

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A coach's - a teacher's - most important job is to help people reach deep into their essence and live in accordance with it. A), B) and C) are the jobs of leaders and managers, not a coach or a teacher.
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"The teacher does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind." ~ Khalil Gibran

Who is the Teacher?

In Star Trek, the Next Generation
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If you chose Guinan, you would be correct. If you chose Wesley Crusher, you are close. Why? Read below.

Star Trek, the Next Generation

Captain Picard, Guinan, the Traveler and Wesley Crusher

Captain Jean-Luc Picard

The leader

Captain Picard is a leader which seems like common sense, but in this case it really is not. The captain of a typical ship - whether charting the galaxy or treading waters here on Earth - needs to be a manager first and a leader second. Like the CEO of a corporation, she needs to be perhaps 65% manager and 35% leader. Enterprise is different, however. Its charter is exploration, where it encounters many unknowns, and the captain has to make many decisions without contacting the Federation. So the job requires more leadership than management.

Captain Picard is also a bit more free-spirited than many of his bosses would prefer. More than once, he gets in trouble with the hierarchy and at least once he ends up exposing his higher-ups for their wrong-doings. Although he respects and is loyal to the Federation's directive of non-involvement with alien cultures, he treads a fine line between obeying the directive and getting involved, because he thinks it is the right thing to do, even risking his sterling reputation and much admired career in the process.

Leadership and Management

Lessons from Star Trek
All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek

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Star Trek: Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation

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The Ethics of Star Trek

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Commander William Riker

The manager

Commander Riker is a manager. He is loyal and relishes serving under Captain Picard, for whom he has deep admiration. Good managers are loyal to a fault, even if they occasionally disagree with their leader. This is their strength, not weakness.

More than once, commander Riker turns down the opportunity to command a ship of his own. At least once, he is accused of "playing it safe" by his superior officers. But commander Riker stands his ground and continues to serve under his captain, even when Captain Picard himself tells him that "there is nothing like having a command of one's own ship." Riker is self-assured enough to not let other people's opinions sway his judgment about what his true calling is.

Good managers have accepted that they are good managers and don't "try to be leaders" despite the often enormous pressure from today's corporate culture that mistakenly equates a leader to a hero and puts her on a pedestal.

Leadership in Star Trek, the Next Generation

Five Leadership Lessons from Jean-Luc Picard
Star Trek continues to inspire the modern-day businessman, as evident by this article recently published by the Forbes magazine.


A coach, a teacher and a guide

Teachers are inherently insightful because they seem to be connected to and in harmony with the source of all creation. They are intuitive in ways that they can't explain themselves. They also effortlessly connect with other people and empathize with them - feel what they are feeling - naturally. That's why, people feel drawn to a teacher in a very personal and intimate way (unlike a mass of people being drawn to a charismatic personality.)

Teachers live among us and yet are somehow able to not get caught up with life and living in ways that most of us do. They are naturally able to keep a deeper, broader, more meaningful perspective on things, people, circumstances and events.

Guinan has all of the personal characteristics described above. She lives on the ship, works with the crew, mingles with the staff and yet somehow remains above it all. She is detached yet empathetic, involved yet aloof, conversant yet alone, drawing on her own internal resources to keep her rooted and nourished. She is present, observant, and always, always emotionally available.

Teachers are not without personal stories. (Guinan is one of the few survivors of an annihilated species that used to have billions of members.) Yet, teachers somehow have the ability to transcend their human experience and gain insight about the world from an objective perspective, the perspective of an observer.

Teachers don't always work as teachers, although many do. Nor do they always have an official position of a teacher. Guinan is a bartender on the ship. Yet no one commands more respect from the Captain of the ship than her. She is the only person on the ship who can walk into the captain's quarters and tell him that the decision he is about to make is wrong.

Star Trek, the Next Generation

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Ensign Wesley Crusher

Teacher in training

Wesley Crusher is a child prodigy who practically grows up on the ship. His special talents are admired by all. He has also won the hearts of most crew members with his self-effacing demeanor and charming manners.

Everyone on the ship thinks he will one day make a fine star-fleet officer. But destiny has other plans. He is "discovered" by a visiting, highly evolved, multi-dimensional entity called the Traveler. The Traveler helps him see his true purpose. Wesley Crusher decides to join the Traveler on his travels through the many dimensions of Existence.

Wesley Crusher is a teacher in making who is lucky enough to receive the guidance of a mentor. He is also fortunate to have a mother and a father-figure (Captain Picard) who understand that his destiny is much greater than the confined existence of a start-fleet officer. They respect his decision to leave the ship - "throw it all away" as many parents would perceive it - and fulfill his true calling.

Your Turn!

It's important for me to have a coach, a teacher or a guide to help me bring a deeper meaning to my life, career or business.


Counselor Deanna Troi

Manager and leader in training

So why is Deanna Troi, the ship's counselor, not a teacher? She works within the confines of the ship's hierarchy and chain of command, which limits her ability to step outside their boundaries and deliver a fearless opinion to a leader - or to anyone for that matter. She is an employee who is training to be a manager and a leader. Unlike Guinan, who is not beholden to anyone for telling what she perceives as truth, Deanna Troi gives an opinion only when asked for by Captain Piccard. Guinan can - and does, at least once - confront the captain unsolicited and tell him that he is making a mistake, something that would get Deanna Troi in serious trouble.

Leadership versus Management

Further Reading

Leader vs Manager: Traits, Qualities and Characteristics
This article starts with a simple self-assessment that helps you determine whether you are predominantly a leader or a manager. It also defines leadership versus management and compares and contrasts traits, characteristics and qualities of leaders and managers.

Strategy vs Tactics: Slow Route to Victory or Noise Before Defeat?
Both strategy and tactics are important in business and, in fact, in every human endeavor. Strategy and tactics loosely correlate to leadership and management: Leaders tend to be more strategically inclined while managers are primarily concerned with tactics. Which one is more important? This article sheds some light.

More on Leadership, Management and Organizational Development

A high performing organization consists of highly productive people who are deeply engaged with their work. This article examines the importance of awareness in such organizations.
Most adults develop 7 beliefs about teaching and learning that become barriers to their professional growth and development. Presented are these beliefs and their corrections.
Discover a simple, 2-page business plan template to help you create a Dynamic Business Blueprint that provides day-to-day operational guidance in running your small business.
Leader vs Manager uses three movies - Batman, Jurassic Park and Wall Street - to dispel some of the most common myths about what it means to be a leader versus a manager.

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Leader vs Manager vs Coach: Lessons from Star Trek TNG
Leader vs Manager vs Coach: Lessons f...
Updated: 08/22/2014, Bhavesh
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

What's Your Take-Away on the Role of a Leader, Manager or Coach?

2uesday on 07/06/2012

I cannot really explain how it has but reading this has helped me to understand something about the way I write online. It will be useful to me, thank you.

Bhavesh on 04/14/2012

Mladen, It's great to find a fellow trekkie! I agree, Guinan is the best character in The Next Generation, followed perhaps by Captain Picard. The folklore is that Whoopi Goldberg asked for a part in the series so the producers created a role just for her. I am also impressed by Gene Roddenberry's writing - nothing less than genius.

Mladen on 04/14/2012

Great explanation about leaders-managers-coaches. I was always confused about those things. And I am glad you used Star Trek TNG to provide simple and understandable leader vs manager vs coach lesson to us, trekkies. Oh, I just love ST. :)
Off the topic: Guinan is the best character in The Next Generation. Ok, I had to say that.:)

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