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Transformational leadership: My dinner keynote @ NASA

Last month, I was down in Texas, invited by NASA to be the after-dinner speaker for a leadership meeting of senior executives — mission commanders, project directors, various astronauts now involved in different roles — on the theme of “transformational leadership.”

Going in, I knew this would be one of the toughest keynotes I would take on during my 18 year career – this would be a tough crowd. After all, NASA is at anextremely challenging phase, with a great degree of uncertainty with respect to its future role and mission.

There are big, unanswered questions and issues surrounding the future of the organization; certainly a lot of organizational trauma as the space shuttle program is wound down; a great deal of uncertainty with new directions such as the commercialization of space flight; much internal debate as to whether the recently established direction is the “right” thing.

A pretty complicated situation! Given that, I was honoured to be invited in to speak to them; personally, I was a bit overwhelmed, knowing this to be an extremely complex situation, with a group of leaders who might be all over the map in terms of their acceptance of the current reality.

So what did I talk about? My key goal was to go in and provide some insight as to what history has taught us as to what great leaders have done during a time of great transition, and what current leaders are doing right now to ensure they stay focused on innovation and the future.

In other words, what do leaders do during transformational times?

There were several key themes that I hit upon:

  1. In a time of great change, great leaders work fast to shape the focus of their team.

It’s not as if NASA hasn’t been before; it’s history has been one full of volatility in terms of future direction. That’s a reality that comes from being a public institution funded by the shifting political winds which swirl around it.

In my dinner talk, I held up the example of what they were going through  in 1993 when the International Space Station was at risk. “NASA officials allowed themselves Tuesday to talk about the possibility of life without the space station. They clearly didn’t enjoy the talk, but said the nation can still have a vigorous space program — and achieve many of the same goals — without the $31 billion project.” NASA imagines life without space station, Houston Chronicle, 28 April 1993

Of course, NASA got through that difficult period of time; it will go through more. Great leaders keep everyone focused on the future, however volatile it might be!

2. Great leaders provide a message of continuity despite uncertainty

NASA is in a period of great uncertainty from many different perspectives. Yet what great leaders have done in the past and keep on doing — in government, industry and elsewhere — is to work fast to ensure that the team understands that there still is a future, even it if its a different future.

From the 1993 article: “If the space station is canceled, it is my inherent belief that we will continue to have a robust manned spaceflight program that includes science. There will be activities that will become alternative choices to a space station,” Arnold Aldrich, associate administrator of the space agency, told the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.” NASA imagines life without space station, Houston Chronicle, 28 April 1993

What was so absolutely wonderful was that the fellow in the article showing that attitude — Alan Aldrich — was in the room as I spoke these words. I knew he was there in advance ; he was speaking to the group earlier in the day. I presumed that he was of a transformational mindset as a leader, and I was delighted to discover his quote during my preparation of my talk.

3. Transformation leaders refocus their team on the opportunities of the future by crystallizing innovation

Consider the next comment by Aldrich in the article: “In other words, I believe we would be very much driven to find alternative ways to meet the same primary goals of the Space Station Freedom.” NASA imagines life without space station, Houston Chronicle, 28 April 1993

What do transformational leaders do? They set a tone at the top — we’ve got to challenge ourselves to accept our new realities, focus on the opportunities of the future rather than clinging to the glories of our past, and work hard to think and act differently as to achieve our goals.

Did my talk work? Mostly: I had some extremely positive feedback, with 79% of the group ranking my presentation as “above expectations” or “greatly above expectations.”

  • “Good eye opener brief and well timed at the end. I liked his fast paced style. I did question his 3 global problems for the world – energy, environment, health care. Globally, food and water are the leading problems on the horizon”
  • “Good info presented at a good time in the session”
  • “Great presentation, great perspective, EXCELLENT on all accounts.”
  • “Not big on motivational speakers, but thought Jim did a good job of drawing relevant parallels between NASA’s situation and other big companies.  Appreciated his perspective on the importance of transitional leadership.  Appreciate the fact he didn’t make judgment about what the “right” or “wrong” side of the argument was, but rather how to be effective IN the environment”
  • “Outstanding.  Very thought provoking which I believe was the intent”
  • “Thought provoking”
  • “I resonated with this speaker; it’s very hard, NASA needs more of this kind of attitude to more readily accept changes to explore/exploit opportunities”

I will admit it was not all a bed of roses; some of the folks in the room did not like my focus. 4% rated my presentation as below expectations.

One participant commented: “It was an interesting presentation, but I wasn’t impressed with the content.  I recognize the importance of being positive and optimistic and he captured that thought well.  I just couldn’t relate to the entire conversation.”

I will admit that the unique job I have — challenging people to think about the future — can often be a difficult one. Particularly when people are in the midst of a very difficult transition. Going into the NASA gig, I knew I would be facing a tough audience. It’s a tough situation.

I’m kind of thrilled that I was able to make such a positive contribution — and to me, that’s what transformational leadership is all about. I knew I couldn’t get my message to everyone in the room – but it seems like it worked for the majority of them!

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