3 brilliant leadership qualities I learned from NASA

October 10, 2013


Setbacks happen so often in the life of an entrepreneur that I believe our ability to cope with them goes a long way towards predicting our success. That’s why I spend a lot of time looking into how others bounce back from business failures.

I didn’t think I’d find part of the answer to dealing with freelance setbacks in one of the biggest government organizations on the planet. I’m talking about NASA, the US space agency with a billion-dollar budget and thousands of employees. The fine people who brought you Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong, as well as the Space Shuttle and the Hubble space telescope.

You wouldn’t think an organization that huge would have much in common with a one-person shop. But NASA operates under three leadership qualities they use to help turn problems into success. Let’s take a look.

How to turn failure into success

NASA has been responsible for some of civilization’s greatest achievements—like sending a rover to search for life on Mars and putting a man on the moon. And, as entrepreneurs, many of us have similar, though smaller, stretch goals. Which is great, except what happens when you set a huge goal and then fall short?

Ask NASA.

The Hubble space telescope was designed to open up the universe. It was the first telescope designed to operate outside our atmosphere—the first to see deep into space without the interference that degrades conventional scopes.

It took fifteen years and three billion dollars to build. And when NASA got it into orbit and opened the lens for the first time—nothing. The mirror had been manufactured wrong. It was useless.

How do you bounce back from something like that—when your greatest goal, the thing that’s been driving you for years, falls on its face?

Here are three leadership qualities NASA and all successful entrepreneurs demonstrate to turn adversity into growth.

Leadership quality 1: Making critiques a part of your routine

NASA takes things apart—daily, weekly, yearly. They constantly break down every process, every part and every plan. Then they use their findings to improve every bit of their organization.

And that approach can work for smaller businesses too. I get a lot of value out of putting aside time every week to review what’s worked or not worked over the past few days. I try to come up a short list of two or three corrections or improvements that could either avert a problem that I see coming, or improve the way I do something. (Last week it was a new mobile app that transcribes audio from author interviews.)

But just setting aside time doesn’t guarantee you’ll spot the things that need to be addressed. Luckily the way NASA handles its project evaluations gives us some pointers for getting better at uncovering issues.

Leadership quality 2: Finding problems in unlikely places

The temptation when reviewing your work is to think only about the things you’re most comfortable with. For instance, programmers search for bugs in their code, sales people look for better ways to present. But NASA’s years of experience have shown that what lies outside your day-to-day focus is often the source of your greatest risk.

When Hubble failed, NASA did what it does well and looked for technical reasons why the telescope didn’t work. They searched high and low, but found nothing that helped. It wasn’t until NASA’s leadership started looking beyond the technical that they discovered what had really gone wrong. They found that the root cause of the scope’s failure was a communications issue between NASA and the supplier charged with building the mirror. Specs were misunderstood. The supplier, in the heat of budget and deadline pressure, put in a “fudge” fix without talking with NASA—and that’s what ruined the mirror. Because time was tight and the two sides didn’t communicate, NASA didn’t know about the fudge. The problem became invisible to technical analysis and a doomed mirror ended up getting launched.

Another way we can sometimes miss spotting a problem is when we fail to see the forest for the trees. Psychologists call it the normalization of deviance—an awful phrase that means that sometimes you’re too close to a problem to see what’s really wrong. I’ve been guilty of that—trying to help a client analyze what’s wrong with their marketing strategies when the real problem turns out to be their vision.

Once you have identified problems, big and small, the issue becomes how do I move forward to a solution?

Leadership quality 3: Creating a problem-solving culture

The answer lies in what you do with your new insight.

Some companies focus on what went wrong and who the culprit is. But, rather than punish failure, NASA works hard to put a fix in place. They try to avoid hiding behind denial or blame when a failure happens. These negative reactions are a brake on business growth. They paralyze, sap motivation, and impede innovation.

In the case of Hubble, when NASA figured out what was wrong with the mirror they had a choice. They could have scapegoated the supplier or the NASA people responsible. But instead they focussed on moving forward. They realized that the mirror was uniformly out of shape. There wasn’t a defect in one part of it—the whole thing was out by a consistent amount. In effect, it had the wrong ‘prescription.’ So instead of laying blame, they fitted Hubble with a pair of glasses, lenses ground to correct the error the supplier had introduced—and ever since we’ve been seeing deeper into the universe than ever before.

In my own business I’ve found that when I ignore or try to explain away a problem—I’m not dealing with it. No solution gets put in place and I run the risk of it happening again.

Blaming is no better. Whether you criticize yourself, an employee or a partner—it makes people fearful. When blame flies around, people start avoiding trouble, rather than finding solutions.

Successful entrepreneurs know how important it is to encourage openness and innovation. I know an entrepreneur for example who does a terrific job of encouraging a culture of innovation amongst his employees, partners and clients. He takes ownership of his own mistakes, he spends time each week with the group reviewing what has happened, recognizing success and encouraging new ideas or approaches. His thinking is, identifying a problem before it happens is important to the business—hiding the issue holds us back.

Wrap up

Setbacks happen to all of us. But when you carefully review every project, when you root out the real source of the problem, and then implement solutions rather than laying blame you create a business that can weather most any failure and come out better afterwards.

Editor’s suggestion: If you enjoyed learning how leaders overcome setbacks you might also like this post on how successful people avoid the dark side of negative thoughts.


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