Rebecca Todd

Leadership Lessons from Outer Space and Cmdr Chris Hadfield

By: Rebecca Todd | October 15, 2013 | 
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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.

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