Kobayashi Maru


How do you win when you’re in a position that is strategically unwinnable?


A “Kobayashi Maru” is any situation in which all available options will seemingly lead to undesirable outcomes, and yet as a leader you must act. For the smarty pants folks out there, yes, doing nothing is also an action.


This classic conundrum comes from the most classic leadership master-course course of all time, Star Trek. No, not the emotionally intelligent and refined Star Trek Next Generation. I’m talking about the real Star Trek. Captain Kirk Star Trek. William Shatner or Chris Pine, take your pick. Grit and guts. Over-acting. Galactic melodrama. Alien romances.


This was a training simulation for Star Fleet officers. The situation is this. You’re in command on the bridge of a starship. You’re all alone in a vast backwater of space. You receive a distress call from another federation starship, the Kobayashi Maru. The ship is disabled and needs your help. Seems simple enough. Off to the rescue!


No so fast… Here’s the pickle.


The disabled ship is stranded in the demilitarized “Neutral Zone” that borders the Klingon Empire. They are not supposed to be there. It’s a treaty violation. If you’re not familiar with Star Trek, Klingons are basically large, short-tempered, warlike space barbarians - with lasers and starships. They are a powerful society organized entirely around conquest and warfare. In this respect, the Klingon Empire was like Sparta was to Athens or the USSR was to the mid-century US in the popular American mind. I digress. Back to our training exercise.


As a Starfleet Officer you are duty bound to answer the call of another starship in distress. To not respond would undoubtedly abandon your comrades to the savageries of the Klingons. On the other hand, if you do respond and enter the Neutral Zone, you will certainly be engaged in a battle in which you will be vastly outnumbered and outgunned. In short, you’ll die and likely take the lives of your crew and all of those on the Kobayashi Maru with you. You’ll also risk starting a new intergalactic war that could kill millions. So, there’s that.


What do you do? Dishonor your oath and sacred duty by doing nothing and leave your friends to die? Or do you ride to the rescue facing near certain defeat, death, and bear personal responsibility for starting a cosmic conflagration?


As you might have already guessed, the Kobayashi Maru, is not a test of strategy. It’s a test of character.

The situation is designed to expose how a leader will react when faced with an impossible challenge, certain defeat, and unavoidable suffering. For people trained to win, the test will expose how well they lose and what strength or weaknesses of character come to the fore under extreme duress.


Socially, politically, and certainly in leadership and business over the last year each of us has faced one or more Kobayashi Maru. The smart money would say more are on the way this year. If the world around you is going off-script, the case studies learned in an MBA program are going to be of little avail. Each of us are, or will, face leadership conundrums for which each potential action seems to carry as much risk as doing nothing.


In these situations, remember like a good Starfleet officer that it’s your character that’s being tested not your brains or book-knowledge. Firm principles and grit will serve you as much or more than the right Venn diagram. Instead of what you know, consider:


What personal strengths of character can you lean on?
What known weaknesses should you guard against and address?
What do you stand for?
What’s the higher purpose your work is meant to serve?

As you sit on the edge of the Neutral Zone staring into fate, the question will come, “Captain, what is your order?” There will be as many answers as there are people, but those who “pass” the test will be those who can answer the questions above.


Of course, there is another option. Captain Kirk was the one officer in the history of the test, to safely rescue the Kobayashi Maru. How? He hacked into the simulation the night before the test and changed the parameters – for which he received both a reprimand and a commendation. Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat.


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