Mission Accomplished-Leadership Lessons from a Space Shuttle Commander

Would you trust your team with your life? Will your team trust YOU with theirs? These are the environments in which Space shuttle crew operate. Space Shuttle ventures rely on the mutual trust between the crew members and the trust in their leader: the space shuttle commander. Space shuttle ventures are extremely risky. The crew aren’t sure if they will even see their families ever again. Why would someone willingly take such huge risks? They aren’t doing this for themselves. They are aligned to a mission that’s much bigger than themselves. And the job of aligning the crew with the mission at hand rests on the space shuttle commander and the country’s leadership. For e.g. President John F. Kennedy’s address to the nation and the crew of Apollo 11 helped them align to a mission bigger than themselves – “One of National Pride” to ensure victory in Space over the soviets. President Kennedy did a spectacular job as a leader- He recognized the talent that was resident within his country and realized that it was just a matter of “Marshalling the national resources required”. He urged congress to “commit” to a goal and specified a clear timeline to achieve the goal- of landing a man on the moon within a decade.

Earlier this year i had the honor of meeting Colonel Rick Searfoss, Commander- Space Shuttle- Colombia, and a Pilot on two space trips aboard Space Shuttle Colombia and Atlantis. He was commander of the most complex space mission ever. His leadership led to one of NASA’s most successful space missions ever: sterling results with a $500 million dollar project on a $2 billion national asset. He is currently a speaker on a mission : “To share the leadership, execution excellence, teamwork, and innovation lessons of human space flight to empower organizations to achieve out-of-this-world results!” . He is also the author of “Lift Off” a book about how an astronaut commander learnt to lead the way and focuses on the concept of “Purposeful Leadership”.

In his book, Rick introduces 12 leadership principles aligned around “4Ps” based on his experience @ NASA.

Here’s a brief summary for each of these principles categorized into the 4 Ps: (Excerpt from Rick Searson’s Synoposis of his book)

Purpose- The Why – The Foundation

Purposeful Execution Principle 12: Choose the Hard: Actively seeking and embracing difficult challenges gives powerful initial direction, informs the vision, and encourages the team.

Purposeful Execution Principle 11: Make the mission matter: A meaningful cause in service to others inspires team members to deeply commit to mission accomplishment.

People – The Who: Results don’t happen automatically

Purposeful Execution Principle 10: Work the Matrix: Constant care of the matrix of both internal and external relationships amplifies team unity and leverages effective collaboration.

Purposeful Execution Principle 9: Build Total Trust: More than any single factor, a high-trust culture enables capturing people’s best efforts and contributions to meet the most challenging commitments.

Perspective: The How

Purposeful Execution Principle 8: Balance the orbit: A positive yet reality-grounded perspective sets the stage for highest team member engagement, productivity, and results.

Purposeful Execution Principle 7: Tether to Principles: Adherence to values-based principles contains drift and systematically keeps execution on track during preparation, action, and follow-through.

Program: The What, Where and When

Purposeful Execution Principle 6: Create Objective-Centric Operations: Achieving correctly defined, well developed, and suitably emphasized objectives empowers the team to fulfill the mission, turning vision into reality.

Purposeful Execution Principle 5: Pace it Perfectly: Pushing ahead diligently with a long-range view, opportunities orientation, and optimal pace fosters the responsiveness to stay ahead of problems and competitors

Purposeful Execution Principle 4:Prepare Diligently and Constantly: Deep preparation and guarding against complacency in planning, training, and briefing accelerate the team into effective action.

Purposeful Execution Principle 3: Drive awareness and learning: Peak productivity requires superb knowledge and competence, strong situational awareness, and a relentless drive to improve.

Purposeful Execution Principle 2: Persist to prevail: Leading all the way to successful completion requires tenacious persistence, acting in alignment with objectives, wisely mitigating risks, and patiently adjusting operations.

Purposeful Execution Principle 1: Propel Accountability for Results: Execution excellence requires dedicated, realtime, and total accountability, principled adaptability, and a disciplined debriefing mindset. 

Rick’s phenomenal experience as a Space shuttle commander offers incredible insights into leadership, execution, crisis management and life. I would highly recommend his book: Liftoff: An Astronaut Commander’s Countdown For Purpose Powered Leadership

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