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Firefly Leadership

by Ian Doescher


Among nerds and geeks, I am probably the last person in the world to watch the 2002-2003 show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon. I’m almost done with the show, which only ran for one season, and like so many before me I have been delighted by it. The adventures of the crew of the Serenity–many of which resemble the plot of a western–and the crew’s family-like moments of bonding are both really fun to watch.

What I enjoy most, though, is the portrayal of Captain Malcolm Reynolds by actor Nathan Fillion. Captain Reynolds–or Mal, as his friends call him–is occasionally a gullible, bumbling fool. However, he also knows exactly how to take care of his crew. Not only is he unfailingly loyal, often risking life and limb to save a particular crew member from peril, but he also knows how to give crew members exactly what they need. In other words, in his individual interactions with his crew, Mal has an uncanny ability to be kind when he needs to be kind, encouraging when he needs to be encouraging, hard when he needs to be hard, and so on. As I’ve watched Firefly, I’ve been wishing I had the same leadership skills as Captain Reynolds. Here are a few things I think we can all learn from him:

  1. Sometimes leadership is about leveling the playing field. Mal tends to be rougher and more critical with the crew members whose egos need to be put in check, and gentler and more encouraging with those crew members who are less confident. In doing so, he knocks down those who are too lofty and builds up those who are too low. He’s leveling the playing field among his crew, bringing out the best in everyone.
  2. Leadership isn’t about popularity. In more than one scene, Mal gets threatening or downright physical with certain crew members to remind them of their duties. While I’m not suggesting a supervisor or leader in the business world should ever, EVER get physical with their staff, it is a good reminder that sometimes what looks harsh is what gets people on track. If Mal were only ever friendly and easygoing, his crew would go about their own whims. There would be anarchy, because no one would be in charge of making sure the common mission is fulfilled. Mal is wise enough to know that being a strong leader will sometimes make him unpopular.
  3. A leader fosters moment of bonding. One thing I love about Firefly is the scenes of Serenity’s crew eating together. This happens in nearly every episode, where we get a glimpse of the crew at ease together, delighting in each other’s company and sharing a meal. Personally, I think the moments we share around a table together are some of the most important moments of life, so it makes sense that I’m drawn to those scenes. I’ve also noticed that it’s often Mal walking around the ship, telling everybody it’s time to eat. He is fostering this community among his crew, because he knows the time together will strengthen the bonds that are tested at more difficult times.
  4. A leader is willing to laugh at herself or himself. Mal never takes himself so seriously that he can’t enjoy a laugh at his own expense. This is part of what makes his character seem truly human, as opposed to other leaders on other shows who perfect and noble but never silly. The leader who is able to take a joke is the leader in whom a crew can place real trust.

If you haven’t watched Firefly, I highly recommend it. I’m almost done with its one and only season, and I’m already mourning the fact that I won’t get to see more of this crew. If you’re so inclined, pay attention to Captain Reynolds and how he interacts with his crew. Like me, you might learn a thing or two.

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