The Case Against Starbuck: Why Talent is Not Enough

                For anyone who watched television in the early 2000s (oh, woe be upon us before the era of on-demand, streamable drama), Battlestar Galactica was a staple of the weekly line up. For anyone who was not an avid fan, the show featured an ensemble cast and their struggle against the Cylons, a race of overgrown toasters with guns. And to a young and fiery Lieutenant, one particular character stood out among the crowd: Lieutenant Kara “Starbuck” Thrace was a talented and fiercely loyal Viper pilot, confident in her skills, and willing to fight for the things she felt were right. While these traits made her a hero, her character flaws were what made her so captivating: cocky, aggressive, and undisciplined, she made as many problems as her talented flying solved. It made for great television, but in retrospect, I’m thrilled not to have been a member of her squadron.

                Thinking back on Battlestar Galactica, I see Starbuck as an example of a character who makes for great television despite being a terrible example of an officer and one from whom we can learn. Being in the modern military requires more than bravado and talent in the cockpit; it requires a leader with the emotional intelligence (EQ) to maintain and lead a cohesive team. For my counterparts in sister services, never fear, this analogy applies to both officers and enlisted as well as Airman, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines.

                Early in the series, Starbuck’s stock in trade is her superlative talent in her ship; no one can claim to be better. However, her exceptional skill bred a level of cockiness that makes her hard to work with, but, in time of war, her leadership is willing to overlook her bad attitude to keep her flying. Again, this all makes for great television, but I feel sorry for the rest of the pilots in her unit. Those pilots who have to see Starbuck’s misbehavior either ignored or rewarded by leadership, even when they’re throwing her in the brig for insubordination. This values mismatch is the kind of toxic leadership that destroys morale.

                So, why pick on Starbuck? Surely the American military has had mavericks before? Of course, they have; both Billy Mitchell and John Boyd immediately come to mind. Both men are considered mavericks, both undeniably skilled at what they do, but both were also regarded as abrasive and managers, not true leaders. Both men’s careers stopped far short of the potential each possessed. That is because when luck runs out, we must fall back on good leadership. Many of Starbucks exploits succeeded due to luck; it’s not a good story otherwise. But, in a real-life scenario, when luck runs dry, good leadership, a sound plan, and a cohesive team are what helps you survive.

                Fortunately for viewers, the show’s creators wrote Starbuck as an evolving character. That evolution highlights when her talent and bravado are no longer enough. In later episodes, when sidelined by a knee injury, Starbuck does as all good CGOs do, she moves into an FGO role as a planner. In this new role, one that doesn’t depend on technical skills, she realizes that her amazing skills in the cockpit only go so far, in the new role she needed EQ to build, maintain, and lead a team. In true television drama fashion, she still manages to save the day, but in the real world, this isn’t always the case.

                I have been fortunate enough to have taught at the USAF Weapons School, a school designed to produce tactical experts in their respective weapons systems. It aims to train the best tacticians to be expert tactical instructors as well. However, despite the tactical focus, it is often referred to as a “leadership school disguised as a tactics course.” Had there been a Viper Mark II division at the Weapons School, undoubtedly, Starbuck would have attended, but just as unquestionably, she would have washed out. Why? Because this is the real world and talent may get you into Weapons School, but the ability to build, maintain, and lead a team gets you out as a graduate.

                This analogy holds for many education and training opportunities the military offers, as well as working within your primary unit. No one likes the loud mouth Captain whose skill has carried them this far, but they can’t lead their way out of a paper bag. Who would follow someone who can fly the jet but does not care enough to ask their flightmates how they feel between combat missions? We have a name for managers with low EQ: toxic leaders.

                Battlestar Galactic will always hold a place in my heart, as will Kara “Starbuck” Thrace. But reflecting on her from the perspective of a leader, I can see the flaws in the hero I so adored. Her lack of EQ hindered her has a leader; it alienated friends, lovers, and coworkers. Her skillful flying and shooting were not enough to overcome her abrasive nature and when given leadership positions, she rarely found success. Many still view EQ as “too touchy-feely,” but if you can’t build and maintain a team, how can you expect to lead one?


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About the Author: Kera Rolsen is a B-52 Electronic Warfare Officer in the U.S. Air Force. She has deployed both with the B-52 and at the CAOC, graduated from and taught at the USAF Weapons School, and is a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. She is currently the Director of Operations for the B-52 Formal Training Unit. She can be found on Twitter @KeraRolsen and is known to be “awesomely dorky.” The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Cover Photo courtesy: http://thenewartemis.com/2014/07/07/pop-culture-carry-starbuck-battlestar-galactica/

6 Replies to “The Case Against Starbuck: Why Talent is Not Enough”

  1. Kara Thrace was a very badly damaged person who really needed years with a competent therapist. Of course, that was what made her character so compelling. She is grievously wounded and personally abrasive, but fierce and self aware.

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  2. IDK about this one, social skills don’t make bullets hurt any less. This post seems to devalue warfighting ability and technical proficiency. Great teamwork only gets you so far, the team also needs to be able to do the job.

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  3. In Defense of Starbuck

    As foolish as it may be to debate the merits and demerits of fictional characters, the recent post on Starbuck fails to recognize her very strong leadership traits and style, and must be answered.

    War-fighting communities tend to both develop and attract particular individual types in what must be a symbiotic relationship. Stride into any O Club on any Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force Base, especially where/when there is a mix of communities (such as at Nellis AFB during any Flag exercise) and the knowledgeable flightcrew would have a good idea and be able to differentiate between the Navy or Air Force pilots, between tactical and support or heavy aircraft drivers, between Fighters and bombers, between single seat and crewed aircraft, and between those who just talk a good game and those who can deliver. Starbuck portrays the quintessential popular image of the fighter pilot…but so does the more quietly competent Apollo. Though Apollo may seem to exhibit more classic leadership traits, Starbuck is just as worthy of Command and respect as a leader of warriors.

    Starbuck is acknowledged as a great fighter pilot. Her skills in the Viper in peace and in combat are unmatched, her courage undenied, her composure under fire evident. What is alleged is that she lacks the necessary traits to be an effective and competent leader, that she is unfit for command. By her wild streak, and resentfulness of (certain) authority, it is argued Starbuck is unruly and ill-disciplined, unable to create an atmosphere of shared goals with peers and subordinates, and unwilling to respect the chain-of-command—up or down the chain. This is an unfair, and more importantly an inaccurate reading of her character and her actions. Leaders of any era would be wise to recognize command qualities she exhibits.

    As a junior officer, Starbuck certainly exhibits bravado. She also quickly demonstrates that she will not “suffer fools gladly”—even if they are senior. Her interactions with the alcoholic XO of Galactica prove the point. Provoked, she strikes—but she saves verbal comments for private, as it should be. An ability to be direct with incompetence, in comrade-in-arms or with support bureaucracies in general, especially up the chain, is a quality a leader should possess.

    As the newly minted CAG on Pegasus planning for a big operation, she quickly realizes she is out of her depth, and reaches out for help from Apollo (now her putative junior in the Airwing). Putting aside any personal feelings, and professional jealousy, she uses the personnel and materiel resources available to concoct a battle plan to defeat the Cylon Bay Ships and destroy the Resurrection Ship. A recognition of weakness or lack of a particular competence, and willingness to seek assistance from seniors, juniors, or peers is another necessary leadership trait.

    As the Squadron Skipper in the fight against a lethal foe, the Cylon Raider Scar, Starbuck bears the burden of sending too few skilled and several relatively untrained pilots out to meet the threat. To make the weight heavier, Kat, one of her senior pilots and closest peer competitor in flying ability, challenges her abilities, her competence, her leadership—rather than try to ease the load that comes with command. Starbuck demonstrates she’s only human and tries to mitigate and bury the burden by hitting the bottle, to no avail. Though sometimes Skippers may seem greater than human, squadron members would do well to recognize their leaders’ frailties as well as their own. In that regard, realizing one bender put her non-flight worthy, Starbuck took herself off the schedule for a period. (Having flown once or twice when I should not have, and seen others do that as well, it is a sign of character to see someone acknowledge that they are temporarily unfit and do the right thing and ground themselves, no matter what the blowback.)

    Starbuck even claims to Apollo not to remember all the people she had lost in the fight against Scar. Later, Scar is finally dispatched for good by Kat (in large measure enabled by her wingman Starbuck’s maneuvering). At the subsequent celebration, not only is Kat’s accomplishment acknowledged gracefully by Starbuck, Starbuck acknowledges all those that had perished in the attempt to defeat Scar, reciting their individual callsigns in order—putting a lie to her previous claim they were all a blur and forgotten. It was evident that each of her lost pilots wore heavily on her as the Skipper, as a leader, and as a fellow fighter. The love and responsibility that a leader bears for the people under their command may not be evident at the time to squadron members, but Starbuck demonstrates that such love and responsibility must exists in those fit to lead.

    Is Starbuck the perfect leader? Of course not…there is no perfect leader, and different communities will respond positively to different leadership styles. Technical skill or talent in a commander is not sufficient, but it is necessary to have the needed respect rendered. I’d fly with Starbuck anywhere, and would be delighted to work for her in a fighter squadron, on an aircraft carrier—or on a BattleStar.

    Monk
    former F-14 Tomcat, A-4 Skyhawk, F-5 Tiger II driver

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    1. Monk, you sound a bit too much like Starbuck: the steely-eyed fighter pilot alone in the sky. Sure there is somebody else in the plane and you have a wingman, but Puff R. is talking about a larger unit, say an infantry company.
      As an Infantry Lieutenant, I too could “Stride into any O Club”, but I usually just walked.
      Sometimes I also got an invitation to walk into the NCO club. (in civies)
      I earned basic respect from my soldiers with my technical competence (shoot straight, don’t get lost), but we all would have followed our company commander anywhere because he had EQ. I realized this only in retrospect, but tried to be like him.
      Thanks Captain Durham.

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