Tuvix: the dark side of “servant leadership”

Does the world need another Tuvix critique? No, it does not – the topic is well covered. It’s meme-worthy. It captures political imaginations – AOC famously recently (kind-of) weighed in. But one of the reasons why Star Trek Voyager’s Season 2 Episode 24 nags on the public consciousness is precisely because it hits on something unsatisfactory about the nature of modern leadership theory: the ethical answers to moral questions and keeping your crew happy are not the same thing.

The managerial concept of stewardship which underpins servant leadership (one of Robert Greenleaf’s 10 principles of the theory) has recently been highlighted as flawed in its reliance on the assumption that the sum value of a team morality leads to decisions which are in turn ethically right. The assumption that naturally a servant leader is able to seamlessly follow through the whims of their team as well as do the right thing. As Chakotay reminds us in Tuvix, however, “There’s an old axiom: The whole is never greater than the sum of its parts”. This passing but poignant dialogue casts a shadow over Janeway’s eventual decision to sacrifice Tuvix to recover the former crew members. To my mind, despite the lively debate still on-going, sacrificing a present crew member without his consent or co-operation is not an ethically sound decision – and though I have seen well presented arguments about the strategic merits of her actions, these are not the driving force of the episode. Janeway’s decision is swayed by interactions with Kes and empathy with her grieving, not the objective mechanics of destroying one current life to recover 2 no-longer-existing lives. And so the problems of servant leadership are exposed: if your crew want you to commit murder, do you commit murder?

I would point out that some accounts of servant leadership highlight the fact it should in practice blend with ethical leadership, and as such a leader needs to actively guide their team through difficult problems in order to reach the most acceptable conclusion: Janeway did not do this. And that was not through an absence of the presence of any other views – significantly the Doctor refuses to carry out the procedure restoring Neelix/Tuvok on ethical grounds. However, the framework supplied for working through ethical dilemmas via Starfleet’s Prime Directive don’t really cover this kind of scenario (though there have been arguments cited above as to why Janeway’s actions are driven by the needs of the many, this doesn’t really address the ethical complexities of the problem) and so one might assume that the set of circumstances might genuinely fall out of the philosophical paradigm presiding over these future events.

Is there anything we can take from this dark tale and reflect back onto our understanding of leadership in practice? Certainly a warning: that servant leadership as it is taught – the Greenleaf model and 10 principles – falls short in areas of ethical and philosophical complexity. That we cannot get lost in the idea of servitude in leadership at the expense of our core values.

Further reading:

Langhof, J.G. and Gueldenberg, S. (2021), “Whom to serve? Exploring the moral dimension of servant leadership: Answers from operation Valkyrie”, Journal of Management History, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMH-09-2020-0056

Reddy A.V., Kamesh A.V.S. (2016) Integrating Servant Leadership and Ethical Leadership. In: Chatterji M., Zsolnai L. (eds) Ethical Leadership. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-60194-0_7

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