An Astronaut's Guide to Leading and Thriving

An Astronaut's Guide to Leading and Thriving

Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the International Space Station, who is widely referred to as “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong,” shares the biggest leadership and teamwork lessons he learned in space and gives some out-of-the-world tips for adapting and thriving in COVID-19 and beyond.

In your book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, you tell a fascinating story of when your son was ten and proudly demonstrated to you how many laps he could swim underwater in one breath. And without thinking, you jumped in and swam one more lap than your son. What did this experience teach you about leadership and the “destructive power of competitiveness”?


Being a parent is an unusual form of leadership where you not only have responsibility for making decisions and care for the welfare of the person you’re leading, but you also have direct blood ties and a lifelong relationship and commitment. Moreover, it also spans the full gamut of ages.


What I found as a parent is you can never do it right. You try and do it as well as you can, but you constantly make mistakes, like any leader. It’s important as a parent to provide for kids and to give them stability. But at the same time, they have to learn to earn things and figure out a way to attain them. If you always let your children win at everything, then they’re going to have a very skewed and inaccurate view of how the world is going to treat them when they leave the confines of your home. So, sometimes I got it right as a parent, but on that particular day, I think I got it seriously wrong.


I should have been a little quieter that day with my own accomplishments and more praiseful of his. Likewise, as a leader, you have to visualise the state that your subordinate or the person you’re leading is in and then redefine how you want to develop them and give them more skills and more confidence.


That day, I kind of made my son feel less proud of himself, which was not my intention. What I learned about leadership that day was empathy: Put yourself in the shoes of the people around you, try to see the world through their eyes, and recognise that they are not perfect and you are not perfect — while keeping the goal in mind of how you can help your subordinate become a better, more competent, more confident person.


If you’re in a 100 metres race at the Olympics, competitiveness is everything: Your sole purpose is to win. This can also be true in business, where constraints are tight and winning is everything — but not always. To succeed, you must have a strong and easily accessible competitive streak, but at the same time, you have to learn how to temper it and overlay your competitiveness with patience.


I’ve heard that if we aim for the stars, we will at least land on the moon. But you say we should aim to be a zero when faced with a new situation. Why would leaders (and people in general) ever aim to be a zero? 


When you’re coming into a new situation, say, a new role, you have a choice of how you’re going to behave. It can be very tempting to come in and try and demonstrate all of your strengths, show that you know what’s going on, and have the situation figured out. But my experience has been that when you’re brand new to a situation, the people that have been there for a while understand the situation better than you do. There are always nuances and subtleties and countering forces at play. So when you just come in, do a snap assessment, and start making decisions and taking action, you’re going to have missed most of those nuances. And you’re going to blunder around.


You can come, for instance, in a new role and try to be a plus one (i.e. a positive influence). However, if you tackle a complex situation by immediately trying to be your impressive plus-one self, you might actually do harm. You’re going to miss some things that are important to everybody else there, and they’re not going to see you as a positive influence; they’ll see you as a minus one (i.e. a negative influence).


So, initially, deliberately aim to be a zero, not a plus one and obviously not a minus one. Just aim to be neutral. When you come into a new situation, spend some time trying to understand the delicate nature of the environment and the subtleties around you. Don’t just take your existing set of rules and interpretations and force them into a new situation. The house is seldom on fire, and if you can wait a while and pick up on some of the real things happening, you can be much more deliberate in demonstrating your skills in being a positive influence.


Listen more than you talk; observe more than you broadcast. Then, once you’ve got a rough lay of the land, be intentional in asserting the things that you know will have a positive influence overall for everybody else.


We are often told that to achieve a major goal, think positive. However, you say your optimism and confidence come from harnessing the power of negative thinking. How do you use such a mindset to your advantage?


It’s easy to just say that you’re going to have a million dollars, a new car, a beautiful family, or whatever it is that is of interest to you or that you value or want. But the reality is that, inevitably, in pursuit of the things you want and are important to you in life, things are going to go wrong. On the path to the beautiful family or the new car or whatever, there will always be accidents, interpersonal problems, financial problems, and COVID. Things often go differently than planned.


If the main focus of your visualisation of the future is Pollyanna and just focusing on things going right, then you are helpless when life actually unfolds the way that it always does. Lots of people go through life afraid and stressed due to a constant background fear because they haven’t done any real productive negative thinking. If you merely visualise success, then you will be crippled, hamstrung and stumped by failure because you won’t have developed the skills or the backup plans to deal with it. This not only works for flying a spaceship, which is an incredibly complicated vehicle, or commanding a space station or doing a spacewalk — it also works in normal life.


Focusing on things going wrong when there’s no real threat improves your odds of doing the right thing when the problem actually occurs. It lowers your stress level and decreases fear. Life is so much richer when you’re calm, relaxed, competent and aware. On the other hand, life is so narrow and uncomfortable when you’re fearful and unready.


What have you learned about managing stress, fear, anxiety, and loneliness as an astronaut that people can use to manage their mental health during the pandemic and beyond?


In the life of an astronaut, say, on a spaceship, you are physically isolated. You can only communicate virtually with people. You’re confined, and you cannot leave the building. If you do, rarely, maybe once a year, a small group of you will go for a very short spacewalk, even that you’re claustrophobically enclosed inside your spacesuit, so you’re really not leaving. You’re surrounded by danger: meteorites bounce off the outside of your spaceship all the time. If anything goes wrong and you can’t deal with it, you die. So it’s a very dangerous environment to be in, and you don’t know how long it’s going to last. You never know for sure when and if you’re going to go back to Earth. You could see all of those things as being very oppressive and hard to deal with, and if anything, it’s sort of like COVID-19 exaggerated. I think the big difference is that it’s the core of an astronaut’s job, and so they see it differently in a psychological way because of that.

The first thing you can do when dealing with sudden and huge external change is to understand the danger.


Astronauts don’t wish away the risks or ignore them because the risks don’t care whether you ignore them or not. They’re still going to be there. So if you don’t understand them, there’s very little chance you’ll act adequately, and an incorrect response will do you damage.


Once you’ve determined what the dangers are, modify your set of activities to match that danger. Recognise you have to change because of the change in external circumstances. Don’t be in love with your old life. That’s psychologically important. Many people today feel they are trapped and marooned, and the pandemic is interrupting their lives. Well, this may not be the life that you were thinking of 18 months ago, but this isn’t a time out from your life; this is your life. It’s just a different set of rules right now. Your previous life wasn’t perfect; it was just the one where you had built a set of habits to match. So if the external circumstances change, you have to change your habits to match the new reality. You can’t just be in love with your old life; it wasn’t perfect either; it was just the one you were used to.


It’s also never been more important to be kind to and tolerant of other people because everyone’s trying to figure things out. No one expected the pandemic. It’s just like when I was on a spaceship talking to Mission Control, visualising the humanity of the person I was talking to and recognising that they’re as imperfect as I am. So give everybody a lot more benefit of the doubt than you would normally.


Moreover, build sets of rewards and joy that work within the confines of this particular reality and find ways to celebrate. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you to be prideful or joyful; make it personal and, if you can, include the people around you to share and find joy.


Lastly, make a revised schedule that matches your changed reality. That’s how we thrive on spaceships. It’s not the physical proximity that causes loneliness; it’s psychological. There tends to be a public perception that spaceflight is lonely. However, it’s the opposite. I got to see all 7.6 billion people every day, 16 times around the world, with 16 sunsets a day. I was working hard, talking virtually with people all around the planet, and hugely engaged with the world, even though I was more physically isolated than everybody else except my own crew.


Being alone is quite different from being lonely, and sometimes we tend to make those two things act like synonyms when they’re not. Life onboard a spaceship is joyful, celebratory, human, and fun because of the difference in how we approach the constraints on our lives up there.


Are there some other leadership lessons that you’d like to share from your experience of commanding the International Space Station?


The people flying spaceships weren’t born astronauts. They weren’t hatched that way; they deliberately turned themselves into those people. It’s like whittling a sculpture. You are the result of your own decisions, and to a large degree, you are the constantly refined product of your own decision-making. So it’s very important to be deliberate in doing that.


Another defining characteristic of astronauts is a perpetual dissatisfaction with their level of competence at everything. They’re always aware of the fact that competencies have a shelf life.

If you’re good at something, but you don’t practice it and constantly try to improve it, then you will no longer be good at it. The external environment is going to shift so that your competency becomes stale or outdated. So it’s important to be content with and proud of your competencies and use those like a platform underneath you. However, at the same time, you should not be complacent and constantly strive to improve your ability at everything that you do.


There’s always someone who will do better at something than you do. If you’re a good guitar player, singer, writer, runner, or whatever, there’s always at least one person who’s better at that particular skill than you are. So constantly work to improve the project that is yourself and improve your own abilities. It doesn’t matter what age or stage of life you’re at. As a leader, extrapolate this thought pattern and set of values to those you’re managing and apply it to how you’re leading people and a business.


Photo Credit: Max Rosenstein

Chris' upcoming novel The Apollo Murders will be released on October 12.


Ankita Sharma is working as Senior Editor with Human Capital. With 6+ years of experience, she has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire.


0/3000 Free Article Left >Subscribe