Rebecca Todd

Leadership Lessons from Outer Space and Cmdr Chris Hadfield

By: Rebecca Todd | October 15, 2013 | 

Chris Hadfield

By Rebecca Todd

One of my favorite science fiction authors, Robert Heinlein, always writes his male heroes with the same general stats – extraordinarily smart, handy, manly men, who are also romantic and passionate. Total swashbucklers.

No wonder then that, like Lazarus Long, I find Chris Hadfield so captivating.

He has the smarts of an engineer, the fearlessness of a test pilot (*ahem* Woodrow Wilson Smith), and the creative passion of a rock star.

If, like me, you followed the different accounts that Chris’s son ran for him back on Earth, you saw his photos and videos and songs chronicling his time living on the International Space Station (ISS). But what you may not have had a chance to learn about is Cmdr Hadfield’s vision of leadership

Ground Control to Chris Hadfield

I was very fortunate to have the chance to listen to the Commander speak about space, social media, and leadership lessons at the Ivey Business School’s 90th anniversary event on September 9th.

I learned fabulous details about space travel (did you know the space shuttle operates on 128k of memory???) and also got schooled in leadership lessons, as they relate to business, crisis, and communications.

He told the story of how, on Thursday, May 9, 2013, the astronauts aboard the ISS discovered an ammonia leak. Ammonia is used to cool the station and is vital to its operation.

Usually, it takes at least nine days to schedule a spacewalk. When the leak was discovered, the Soyuz capsule containing Commander Hadfield and two of his crew was due to descend to earth, leaving behind one astronaut on his own.

This one man would then be stranded, awaiting his new crew, hoping the ammonia supply would hold out. The Commander said, of course, there was absolutely no doubt – it had to be fixed before the Soyuz would depart for Earth.

Chris contacted Mission Control on Earth, explained the situation, and immediately began to prepare his team for the spacewalk.

On May 11th, two of the ISS crew performed a six hour spacewalk and, under the guidance of the Commander, fixed the issue.

As Cmdr Hadfield told us this tale, he took the time to explicitly share with us his vision and the leadership lessons that can equate to business.

Three lines in particular resonated with me.

Leadership Lesson: Build a Base of Common Competence

The Commander assembled his crew YEARS before they launched. NASA announced in 2010  he would be leading Expedition 35 in December of 2012 and Chris began working closely with his team then.

He spent time with the crew, individually and in group settings. He got to know them well, their professional abilities and their personal attributes, and also encouraged them to get to know each other.

Chris believes the role of a leader is to step back and let his team shine. To do this, each member of the team must have complete faith in the abilities of the rest. By exploring the various expertise of his crew, the Commander focused on the strengths of the individuals to create a solid foundation of trust – between each member of the future ISS crew, within the team as a whole, and between each member and himself as well.

This trust and understanding built a base of common competence that allowed his team to have complete confidence in each other when things got hairy…which of course they did.

Leadership Lesson: Eighty-Nine Degrees Differently is Still the Same Direction

I. Love. This. I love the math geekery of it all, but also what it says about Chris’s style of leadership.

Surprise, surprise, this again comes down to TRUST. A strong leader clearly communicates the vision and goal of the mission.

Commander Hadfield had two goals for his crew aboard the ISS- for all of them to return alive, and for each member of his team to immediately say “let’s go again!” like a kid at an amusement park.

Chris kept those two overarching goals in mind, and shared them with his crew. All he asked of his team is that their activities lead towards the same place – building an environment of safety and excitement.

Cmdr Hadfield didn’t get hung up on the path each member took, as long as they were heading in the same direction. He provided complete freedom and latitude for his crew to choose their own way to contribute to the goals of the mission, as long as ultimately the work was contributing towards their overall success.

Chris believes individuals must have the time and space (ha!) to pursue their passions freely, because a leader must become an autocrat when a crisis does arise…and they always do…

Leadership Lesson: When Your Surge Inevitably Comes, Your Team Has to Have Enough Left to React

You mean to say DON’T grind your team down day-to-day so, come crisis time, they don’t have the energy and drive to react? Now ain’t THAT something?

We’ve all had those jobs. The ones where nothing is ever enough. You give, give, give and try, try, try and they always want MORE. You work extra hours and pour in energy, yet it is never enough.

When the inevitable happens, when the products don’t ship or the website crashes or the space station starts leaking vital ammonia out into space, you are already tapped out with no reserves left to draw upon.

That is when people give up, and teams collapse.

By allowing his crew the latitude to work on the projects they wished, how they wished – as long as they kept the team goals in mind – Cmdr Hadfield didn’t deplete their energy reserves with needless conflict.

By showing his team he trusted them as the qualified professionals they were, Chris built a culture of mutual trust and respect. When disaster struck, the Commander stepped in and took control, his team ready and willing to follow his command.

Within 48 hours, Chris worked with his crew on the ISS and the Earth bound team to successfully lead two astronauts on a six hour spacewalk to fix the broken space station. What normally took days of planning was accomplished in hours. Now that, my friends, is crisis leadership.

As he did every morning, the day before the spacewalk amidst furious planning and preparations, Commander Hadfield greeted us with “Good Morning, Earth!”

About to embark upon a truly record breaking expedition, this was his tone. His mood. His frame of mind. His trust of his team, and theirs of him. Far from cracking under the pressure, Chris’s tweet shows his calm confidence under extreme pressure, just like science fiction heroes always do.

Thank you for your service and leadership, Commander.

About Rebecca Todd

Graduating with her bachelor's of education degree, Rebecca Todd knew the classroom wasn’t for her. Her passion for adventure carried her to educational publishing, and now she travels the globe and savors life on the road as a representative for Ivey Publishing. But she’ll always be an academic at heart, as evidenced by the meticulous annotations in the science fiction novels she loves to find in second-hand bookstores. When she’s not working on her list of the world’s best vegan restaurants, she enjoys hot yoga, hangs with her dogs, and sometimes thinks about working on her Victorian home.

  • Hello lovely! Excellent post as always. I especially love the point about not depleting your team so that they have energy and ‘space’ to function, especially within crisis.
    I think this is very important within team creativity as well. It’s easy to forget the big picture and start to (or have the urge to) micro-manage … You may get immediate results but know that teams aren’t committed to micro-managers. They don’t trust them (as you said) and they don’t feel respected.
    Breathe and let breathe.

    • Thanks Kate! Great point about creativity. There’s a teaching term about “learned dependence” that seems to fit with this concept as well.

  • OMG, Rebecca. This could not have been more timely. I mean for me personally and my selfish interests. I’m sorry that this is off-topic, but I have used this quote from the Lazarus Long character: “Great is the art of the beginning, but greater is the art of the ending.” But I don’t know which book it came from, since he was in several. The Internetz has been no help. Do you know??? Right now I just identify the source as “Robert Heinlein novels.”

    • Hey Rob, I searched all the Heinleins in my kindle app and can’t find that quote. I’ll keep poking around. I love me some Heinlein-carrying The Man Who Sold The Moon around Chicago this week. Heinlein is NEVER off topic!

      • RebeccaTodd Oh, my — I’m sorry for the trouble! I thought you might know off-hand!
        Are you here for Content Jam? I was going to go, but my schedule got jammed, but I hear tell of a happy hour …

        • Yes indeed! I believe there is one post event- want to grab a bevvie? I’ll find the deets!

        • RebeccaTodd I heard something about “Scout,” but yes, deets please. Lots of people there I’d like to meet or see again.
          SO bummed to missing this.

        • Yes at the scout right after con- perhaps 4-4:30 I’d imagine!

  • I heart you, RAT.

  • Love, love, LOVE Cmdr Hadfield!!! Fabulous post Rebecca!

    • Thanks Ell Bee! Even if you cut my swears. Yeah The Cmdr is SO amazing. Love his recent Maclean’s cover!

      • RebeccaTodd I could marry him, actually.

        • You’re married! Eyes off my man! He’s so above RDJ for me.

  • Interesting stuff – it makes me think, yeah all of those people are qualified to do amazing technical things but to have someone direct the mission to success, that requires more than just technical skill, it requires collaborative and leadership skill. As you know that’s been in my brain lately so this is good timing for me to read. 
    He really does sound like a superhero of sorts, or at least as close as us mere humans can get.

    • He really downplayed his own efforts, but this style of confident leadership takes a lot. He had this whole other tangent about why he felt it was so important to be creating art in space-such a fascinating man.

      • RebeccaTodd I am going to have to look into him some more. Find it intriguing when high level leaders think across disciplines. Do you know Michio Kaku? Theoretical physicist, has fascinating insights on non-physics stuff.

        • Do I know Michio? Honestly Joe, you’ve met me. He’s a part of my Skeptics Trump deck thanks to Crispian Jago (and if you don’t know him, get a-googlin’!) But on the serious-have I shared that post about the quantum nature of bees with you? It’s an amazing intersection of biology and math. Lovely.

  • rdopping

    Love this and I couldn’t agree more. I just wish I had a chance to hear that myself. Thanks so much for sharing the story. Mr. Hatfield’s approach has been my mantra for my team as well certainly under much different conditions. Those skills are essential for any sustainable management structure.
    I hope more people get to experience his approach.
    Cheers Rebecca.

    • Yes it was lovely getting to learn more about how you lead your team at lunch recently Ralph. It’s certainly a skill-and one I need to build in myself. Thanks for commenting!

  • AndrewScottChapman

    Great writing RAT! 🙂  Fully agree with everything.  Trust, creative freedom, space – all very important to build a happy and productive team.

    • Hey thanks so much for commenting Andrew! You are quite the leader yourself.

  • Great takeaways! I also really appreciate that Hadfield started out with a goal for how he wanted his team to feel about their experience when they were done — “let’s go again!”  There is a lesson there for marketers and indeed everyone in business: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE IS KING.

    • Ahh excellent take-away Dwayne! I hadn’t thought of that aspect. Thanks!

  • Digital_DRK

    Wow…that is quite an inspiring article, talk about the Right (Leadership) Stuff.  Students at University of Waterloo are most fortunate indeed that Chris Hatfield is returning there to teach.

  • susancellura

    Love the takeaways, but am so wowed that you got to hear him speak!

    • Me too! Honestly, I got a little teary eyed when he walked out. He’s a rock star to me. He then lead a parade back to the new building and I wanted to hold his hand, but no. But at least I can say I paraded with the Commander.

      • susancellura

        RebeccaTodd Very cool.

  • Last month at the 10,765,921 Intergalactic Tribunal Conference, Dance-a-thon and Bake Sale (our Annual Shin-Dig)  the decision was made not to share our teleportation technology with Humans until you all evolve into a peace loving culture. With teleportation there is no need for ammonia or space suits or even seat belts.

    • And why was I not at that conference? For shame!

      • RebeccaTodd we invited you. Were you not capable of opening the holographic 5 dimensional card we sent out?

        • Only five? Pishaw! I was plotting an 11 dimensional Venn Diagram and was too busy to RSVP.

  • Wow…I knew how excited you were to here him speak and now I totally get it.  His example and this post are so powerful!  Thank you, RebeccaTodd!  #RATRocks 🙂

    • Thanks Liz! It was amazing and humbling. I didn’t want it to end!

  • Chris is right. In concept you have assembled a competent team so why wouldn’t you let them do what you brought them on board to do.

    • Exactly. Takes a lot of confidence and trust, but the benefits are outstanding. Thanks for commenting!

  • PR Newbie

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing your ideas and notes from his presentation! I agree he is very engaging, charismatic, and really captured the attention of so many publics – ranging from school children to politicians to people who had not been previously interested in space (like myself!). If you look at his trip into space, it really appears to have been a perfectly executed public relations campaign! He was engaged in so many facets of public relations such as media relations, internal communications, leadership, holding special events on the space station where he created interesting topics to speak about, etc. Even more impressive is that this all happened thousands of miles away from earth and all of these tasks were accomplished in addition to his other very important duties of completing his mission and managing his team. I thought it was pretty ingenious to utilize his social media accounts while he was on his mission too. He really took advantage of all available tools that were at his disposable and used them all so well. I am excited to see what he does in the future and I would love to get the chance to hear him speak one day as I think a PR professional could learn a lot from him!

    • PR Newbie  Thank for commenting! He certainly is a fascinating character. I’ve always had an interest in Space since I saw Empire at 3 and then spent months calling myself Luke… A wonderful part of his talk that I didn’t touch on in this piece connected more directly to his PR/Social Media activities. He felt it was very important to reinforce the concept that humans have been living off planet for years now. And part of human culture is to make art and educate. He took it on as a personal mission to highlight for us Earth bound folks that it isn’t just science happening in space-it is society. My friend DwayneAlicie wrote a lovely response piece to my post focusing on what his leadership style says about customer experience. It is over here, if you want to keep learning from Hadfield…

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