Space exploration is arguably some of the riskiest and most challenging experiences for humans. Astronauts who are selected for space missions require exceptional scientific expertise and survival skills that take years to acquire. On top of years of STEAM education, astronauts train for up to two years at NASA to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to undertake long missions with many major psychological and environmental risks.
Space is a hostile environment and astronauts operating on the International Space Station (ISS) are aware of just how vulnerable they are. This is exacerbated during spacewalks where things can go from calm and controlled to life-threatening in moments. In such cases, astronauts frequently need to know how to adapt by taking direction and leading during times of crisis.
As former astronaut Ellen Oocha told The Washington Post, “Being in the astronaut corps really teaches you a lot about leadership. You have to be both a member of the team and at times a leader of the team.”
The role of an astronaut is not unlike leadership in other industries of business.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially, risk is heightened and the need for strong adaptation spearheaded by leadership is essential to survive. It’s especially needed now that over half of global CEOs believe coronavirus is a significant threat to their business and the disruption of operations for organizations throughout the country makes effective leadership even more crucial.
In these challenging times where an economic slowdown looms over the majority of industries, business leaders may do well to take advantage of the challenges and lessons astronauts have faced in their industry, applying them in metaphorical and practical ways.
Maximize Competency and Guard Against Errors
Astronauts often apply the “fail ops, fail safe” ethos during space missions. When essential equipment fails, the spacecraft must stay operational without compromising anyone’s safety. In business, our conversations center around a similar sense of achieving success, but it’s hard to do that when human error is natural. In highly demanding environments like space, astronauts must make critical, time-sensitive decisions that can come with life or death consequences — and wrong decisions may be hard to impossible to erase. Astronauts often tackle this issue by solidifying a consolidated system of controls, checks and balances to prevent mistakes from happening altogether. If and when disasters strike, aviation experts often apply Jim Reason’s Swiss Cheese Theory to examine why it went wrong. This model focuses on how smaller, adverse events impact and contribute to a larger systems error while demonstrating how harm happens when all system defenses fail.
In business, leaders can embrace the same theory to understand adverse events like the COVID-19 pandemic on their company’s operations or even problems that seem small and inconsequential so that they can learn from them and prevent them from happening again. Through error avoidance and mitigation, business leaders can act similarly to optimize prevention control and avoid negative consequences.
Maintain a Sustainable Work Culture and Environment
Astronauts survive in harsh, zero-gravity environments because they not only have the innovations to help sustain life, but they also create a supportive working culture based on established core values that ensure they’re memorable, relatable and are demonstrated by leadership. According to Dr. Dave Williams, a former senior manager at NASA, the agency’s culture is highly proactive in setting visible goals like safety standards, displaying them on t-shirts and incorporating collaborative goals throughout their organization. The agency itself is known for its advanced and surprisngly open-minded organizational culture. Employees are not just working for themselves but feel like they are contributing to something bigger. This may not always translate to open-mindedness in the commercial markets as an example, but it does foster the ability to look at things from different perspectives.
In business, especially during times of economic crisis, the importance of building a positive company culture that embraces values that highlight the safety and advancement of all has been shown to spawn sustainability, productivity and innovation. Taking care of and championing team members is an important organizational value that former astronaut Garrett Reisman remembers when he worked at NASA with astronaut Nancy Currie. As the branch chief in the Astronaut Office Robotics Brand, Currie went to the department’s director to relentlessly champion the then-rookie astronaut Reisman for a new project, despite that she was a better candidate. That’s an inspiring example of support that Reisman never forgot.
Even after a pandemic, taking care of employees is a must. In your company, it might mean capturing cultural pride that shows a commitment to teamwork, career progression and employee well being, which helps establish unified ideals of how projects can be completed successfully through interdepartmental collaboration.
Listen to Diverse Opinions and Feedback
Underlying the idea of a healthy work culture is the foundation that makes teamwork effective. It is leadership’s ability to listen to advice and feedback from a diverse group of team members in junior and middle management positions.
Garrett Reisman also found that allowing subordinates to tell him what was wrong was essential to successful leadership. Often leaders in every industry become surrounded by a bunch of “yes people,” which can offer disastrous consequences. When Reisman was a leader of a desert survival course, his team’s task was to locate a water source with a map and compass. Reisman studied the map and announced that a distant mountain peak was the one indicated on the map, but he then challenged each of his team members to prove that this particular mountain was not the same one on the map. Working together and hearing everyone’s honest thoughts helped them eventually find the water.
While it’s often easy to work in isolation, especially when navigating any political issues or bureaucratic tensions at work, leaders can break down any silos. It’s essential to foster collaborative and diverse environments where progress can occur. We can also see this lesson playout as astronaut and Commander Scott Kelly acknowledged Russian cosmonaut, Mikhail Kornienko, who shared his journey aboard the International Space Station during NASA’s Journey to Mars, Expedition 46 with thirteen others from various countries. Kelly emphasized the importance of diversity and teamwork, saying, “It’s incredibly important that we all work together to make that seemingly impossible, possible.”
Consistently Communicate and Share with Others
Before Scott Kelly’s journey to the International Space Station, he also promised to stay connected and share his experience of life in space by consistently posting to Instagram and Twitter so that those on Earth could follow along in real-time to learn from his experiences. With advances in today’s communication, it’s critical to share information on a broad and relevant scale.
It’s this type of leadership characteristic that always proves effective: intentional and regular communication that resonates and inspires workers and audiences. As the Harvard Business Review points out, effective leadership comprises consistent sharing and transparent communication with honest and accurate descriptions of status or progression in the specific project, company or industry. It’s necessary at times, especially during a global pandemic, for leaders to be as transparent as possible about what data they know, what they anticipate and what it means for people in the organization. The one important thing to remember is that it maintains a hopeful vision of the future and steps to resolve any challenges.
Take Calculated Risks to Learn Continuously
Before we send astronauts to Mars, we need to understand the physical and psychological impact of living in small and isolated environments without gravity. Commander Scott Kelly’s role aboard the ISS during his unprecedented mission from 2015 to 2016, showed his ability to adapt as he participated in hundreds of studies despite extreme challenges of spending 340 days in orbit. His willingness allowed NASA to collect data on how his body was adjusting to long term life in space and how it readapted to life on Earth. As a leader, it’s critical to be like Kelly and act as a role model, with a strong willingness to take risks and experiment. It’s vital as a leader to demonstrate continuous learning and attempt to improve upon information or activities others may not have examined or tried before.
The mission is now considered a possible steppingstone for sending astronauts to Mars. Meanwhile, Kelly gained insights and new perspectives on the Earth and its environment, relating that he observed our home planet’s climate and pollution in a new way that he could never experience if he hadn’t had the opportunity to view it from space.
Similarly, leaders can intentionally step out of their comfort zones and typical daily activities to help themselves and others see situations in a new and unexpected perspective. Influential leaders understand the benefit that stems from acknowledging and learning new perspectives. They are open to exploring a bigger picture and in the process, they identify new contexts, challenges, barriers, and even opportunities.
All of us have the ability to step into a leadership role — and we don’t have to travel outside of our stratosphere to do so. It’s important that leaders of all kinds actively step out of their comfort zones and collaborate with diverse voices to share and communicate what we’ve learned and, hopefully, broaden our collective horizons.