What I learned from a Space Shuttle Commander

Space has always fascinated me.  Like many people, I looked forward to a Space Shuttle mission.  Shuttle launches and landings generated so much excitement and patriotism that I was deeply saddened when the Shuttle program was put to rest.  Over the years, I lost touch with NASA; until last week, when I had dinner with a retired astronaut while at an IT conference.  Yes, I had dinner with a real live American hero that risked his life for science and space exploration.  If I had known that one day, I would have the opportunity to meet a real astronaut, I would have definitely put it on my bucket list, but I guess I won’t have to now.

At dinner, what surprised me about this gentleman was just how simple and humble he was.  He looked like any other guy.  If I hadn’t recognized his name, I would have never known who he was.  He spoke with confidence and humility.  He went out of his way to understand who I was and what my role was at my company.  I felt like I knew this guy for ages.  I felt that I could trust him.

The next day, the astronaut spoke to about 200 people on leadership and i’d like to share his most salient points:

Focus on Iterations, not Failures – NASA is clearly a research organization, but they weren’t able to get to the moon by sheer luck.  After all, they do call it rocket science for a reason; it took a ton of smart engineers and scientists to get a rocket through the atmosphere, land on the moon and make it back home.  They divided up the work and continuously improved a process over and over until it was as lean as possible.  And while they had many failures, they focused on the end game by not obsessing on every failure (as we all tend to do), but to learn from their mistakes, move past them and keep trying to find a way to make it work.  A lot of great companies have this engrained in their culture – GE, Apple, etc.

Succession Planning – We all kinda stink at this; and it’s really not that hard to plan for.  One of NASA’s biggest failures was the fact that they never had a viable replacement for the Space Shuttle, thereby permanently ending the excitement for a lot of fans like myself.  While there are a number of aerospace companies trying to privatize space travel (including Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic), it just isn’t the same anymore.  Sure, there were a ton of changes in NASA leadership, loss of human life with some of it’s expeditions (that still horrifies me) and the severe shrinking of the budget, but the fact that an alternative or the ‘next shuttle’ wasn’t waiting in the hanger(s) was truly disappointing.  Let’s face it; NASA may never be the same again.

Service to Others – The astronaut spoke about continuing to periodically remind yourself why you do what you do; in almost all instances, you’re there to serve other people (we all are).  He explained that being a shuttle commander was mostly about knowing your people well, knowing what was important to them and what drove them as individuals and as a team.  By knowing this and truly caring, you would not only achieve great results, you would also gain their trust.  And trust is a hard thing to ask for, when you are placing your life in a commander’s hands while traveling to space at 17,500 miles per hour.  I translate this to having strong Emotional Intelligence (EI) and we all know people who demonstrate this well.  These are the people who really care how your weekend was; they get to know you on a personal level and feel like your extended family.  These people gain your trust instantly and would bend over backwards for you.  You would follow these people to the end of the earth and to the moon if necessary (pun intended), because you have professional admiration and trust for them.

It amazed me how these three things translated seamlessly to the business world and especially to those of us in IT.  The focus of iterations has long been the idea behind Agile development and operational processes.  Succession planning is something every leader needs to be doing, but somehow this falls off the list of priorities.  Finally, we do often get so focused on our own careers that we forget why we’re there and how our actions can affect people.

The good news is that we can all work on these.  We can even get coaching assistance to build these into our normal routines.  But by far, beyond the cool factor of spending time with an astronaut, his lesson on ‘service to others’ resonates the most with me, because it is painfully true.


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