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/