Jon Niccum
KU News Service

'To Boldly Go' book examines leadership through lens of science fiction

Thu, 09/30/2021

LAWRENCE — “To boldly go …”

That phrase from Captain Kirk’s opening monologue in the original “Star Trek” series still endures more than 55 years since it first aired. Now it’s also the title of a new book that examines leadership through the lens of science fiction.

Steve Leonard“Everybody recognizes those three words,” said Steven Leonard, a retired senior U.S. Army strategist and program director in organizational leadership at the University of Kansas.

“If you’re going to lead, you boldly go. Not only is it the impetus behind this book, it’s also my personal philosophy of leadership in general that you have to be willing to embrace risk to create opportunities for yourself.”

Leonard is co-editor of “To Boldly Go: Leadership, Strategy, and Conflict in the 21st Century and Beyond.” His compendium recruits 30 writers — strategy experts, senior policy advisers, professional educators, experienced storytellers and ground-level military commanders — to produce essays exploring this topic. It’s published by Casemate.

"To Boldly Go" book cover“Captain Kirk was the prototypical leader I grew up with who typifies the idea of ‘there’s your ship captain,’” said Leonard, a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. “He’s bold, he’s audacious, he always leads from the front and always leads by intuition.”

The retired colonel wanted to assemble something that addressed this level of leadership but had broader appeal than simply a project aimed at either “Star Wars” aficionados or business management enthusiasts. Here, you find subjects that can be appreciated by readers of both Isaac Asimov and Peter Drucker.

Leonard himself writes three of the 35 chapters, including one partnered with co-editor Jonathan Klug that dissects the Battle of the Mutara Nebula.

“It’s the set piece for the conflict between intelligence and experience,” he said of the climactic clash found in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” “Intelligence without experience is wonderful, but it’s the experience that wins those fights, and that plays out with Kirk and Khan.”

Another of his chapters focuses on the 1968 movie “Planet of the Apes.”

“I was just going to write about how it was a contemplation of that late ’60s era. But it instead turned into a class society reflection of how screenwriter Rod Serling weaved his own personal life experiences into the film’s script while growing up dealing with anti-Semitism,” he said.

The book boasts contributors who represent some of the top writers in the genre.

Best-selling author Max Brooks (“World War Z”) composes “Romulans and Remans,” a futuristic examination of desegregation which uses the Romulan War as a metaphor for the Tuskegee Airmen returning home.

Leonard also cites the chapter “Space Battleship Yamato and the Burden of Command” by August Cole (“Ghost Fleet”) as an example of a more obscure sci-fi property that generates provocative material.
“August has a beautifully written chapter dealing with what happens when you’re tasked with an impossible mission, you have the improbable crew and things are stacked against you. How do you bring all that together to find success?” he said.

Craig and Steve Whiteside tap into the cultural zeitgeist with a chapter concerning Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

“It looks at the emergence of a pandemic, which couldn’t be more timely,” Leonard said. “There was no intent to produce a piece on how to lead through COVID-19 because we started this project pre-pandemic. But it becomes a perfect chapter that’s particularly relevant now as the delta variant gains a foothold.”

Leonard isn’t the only KU contributor. Kelsey Cipolla, a communications coordinator in the School of Business, gives insight into the challenges faced by women in positions of power by analyzing the divergent viewpoints of Vice Admiral Holdo and Poe Dameron from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

Now in his seventh year at KU, Leonard has provided chapters to the books “Strategy Strikes Back: How ‘Star Wars’ Explains Modern Military Conflict” (Potomac Books, 2018) and “Winning Westeros: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Explains Modern Military Conflict” (Potomac Books, 2019). He is the co-editor of “Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War” (Middle West Press, 2019). He’s also the creative force behind the subversive web comic “Doctrine Man!!” and its four collected volumes.

“‘To Boldly Go’ wraps up things that I had worked on in earlier anthologies. We had more science fiction to draw from, not just ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Game of Thrones.’ We could open the aperture wide and then bring in more people with a more diverse background for a better, fuller perspective,” he said.

As Major General Mick Ryan of the Australian Army describes in the book’s foreword, “science fiction provides a telescope to the future, a mechanism to think about future challenges.”

Leonard said, “There are a series of messages here that allow us to use science fiction in a way to talk about really important, timely topics. We see the role of leadership in times of crisis — and this is a time of crisis.”

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