This essential work of building answers to new questions turns out to be something that humans do naturally. This is not limited to science and engineering; it’s how we develop from baby to child to adult. It is also a central social process through which economies, societies, and civilizations are sustained.
After college I became an oceanographer. My underlying goal was still to be an explorer: to undertake the type of physical, geographical, and intellectual adventures that had entranced me as a little girl. Then, in the late 1970s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that it needed new astronauts for the space shuttle program. My first thought was, “I could get to see the earth from space with my own eyes!” How could I call myself an earth scientist if I passed up that opportunity? I immediately applied, and joined NASA in 1978 as an astronaut.
The goal of our first year’s training was to gain a solid overview of the agency, the enterprise of manned spaceflight, and the range of roles that astronauts play. We visited all the NASA centers, took condensed courses in every facet of science and engineering related to spaceflight, and qualified to fly jets and to work underwater in simulated weightlessness.
Our program was designed carefully to pass along the experiential knowledge gleaned from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. We had in-depth colloquia with the engineers, flight controllers, program managers, and astronauts who made these missions happen. It was so cool to learn, straight from the folks I had watched on television as a girl, what the objectives, questions, and issues had looked like to them at the time, and how these had driven mission planning, training, and operations. Every briefing was also a concise case study in how to lead effectively in this complex, dynamic, and highly technical arena.
Mastery and Moral Authority
When our first year’s training was over, we started the typical work cycle of an astronaut. For three or four years, we provided technical support to others. Then we trained for a mission. We flew in space. And then we returned to the technical support pool.
This in itself was a crash course in generative leadership. Astronauts get a coveted title, a cool flight suit, and the distinct privilege of flying in space. We are highly visible and, to many, we symbolize NASA itself. The position and all it entails evoke admiration from most folks, but can also elicit envy and resentment from others in the organization. Although we have tremendous responsibility for our individual work and the overall success of any mission we’re working on, we actually have very little formal control. Our ability to get things done stems from mastery and moral authority, rather than from hierarchical power.
The situation reminded me of oceanographic expeditions, specifically the dynamics between the scientific party and the ship’s company. Most of the chief scientists and captains I had sailed with wore their rank lightly and influenced everybody aboard to work together respectfully and constructively to keep the ship safe and conduct our research. But there were scientists who acted as if the crew — with the exception of the captain — were beneath them, and I had seen how the dynamics this created affected morale, scientific effectiveness, and even safety.
As an astronaut, I was now taking on a leadership role on a scale quite different from anything I’d experienced at sea. Over the years, I came to see the leader’s core job as tapping the knowledge and ability of the whole organization while presenting new perspectives that could break through conventional wisdom and reveal a larger spectrum of possible actions. Generative leaders establish a generative culture — stimulating and rich with challenges, and yet safe enough for people to risk taking on sacred cows and exploring new ideas.