This was it, the big moment. The NASA astronauts floated on the cramped flight deck of the space shuttle, huddled around a laptop operated by Pamela Melroy. Her job? To attach a crucial piece of hardware to the International Space Station using motorized bolts. No one had ever done this before, yet the mission commander, Brian Duffy, had given the task to a Melroy, a rookie pilot.
Basically, she couldn’t mess this one up. The tension in the air was palpable as Melroy carefully latched the bolts, then tightened them. At last, all the bolts clicked into place. The crew erupted into celebration. Melroy had done it. Duffy took a risk when he gave this vital task to the least experienced member of his team. But he sensed Melroy was ready for this job. So, he stepped back and gave her the chance to rise to the occasion.
When she knocked it out of the park, it showed Duffy that he could trust her with crucial tasks. And in turn, he earned Melroy’s trust. People tend to respect you when you value their talents and give them opportunities to prove themselves.
Duffy’s belief in Pamela Melroy paid off. Seven years later in 2007, she would become the second woman to command a space shuttle mission. For Duffy, who flew four NASA shuttle missions and commanded the last two, building trust and respect is everything. And part of that is making sure each member of the team feels equally valued. “Trust is absolutely the key essential for leaders,” he says. “People need to trust you … if they don’t trust you, they won’t follow you.”
Of course, this trust is not a given. As a leader you must earn the respect of your team through your own actions, and how you treat your team members. Here are five of Duffy’s valuable tips for building long-lasting trust and respect.
1. Set people up for success
When you give people a new challenge, don’t just throw them into the deep end. Make sure they have all the resources and training they need to succeed.
For example, when Duffy commanded his first NASA flight in 1996, he tasked his rookie pilot, Brent Jett, with a rendezvous to retrieve a satellite. Duffy helped Jett prepare for this job by making he had plenty of training beforehand, as well as proper supervision during the mission.
“It’s not that I wasn’t watching, making sure things were going right, but I gave him a chance,” Duffy says. “You don’t set them up to fail. You make sure they’re properly trained, you make sure they have all the resources that they need, and then you monitor them to make sure that things are going to go well.”
“Everybody looks forward to the chance … to be responsible for something,” he says. “I do think that they’re happy with the leader that (gives them that chance).”
Give people the opportunity to safely stretch themselves. Set people up for success by training them and giving them the resources they need to excel. People will respect you for investing in their development, and for giving them the tools they need to grow.
2. Lead by example
“I am a person that believes in leading by example, and not necessarily by directive,” Duffy says. “Not that I couldn’t be directive if and when the situation required it. But … that’s not my go-to style.”
Instead of just telling people what to do, model the qualities you want to instill in others. This includes pulling your weight on the team and showing confidence in your own abilities.
People respect a leader who walks the walk. And in fact, whether it’s conscious or not, you are always leading by example. “People are always watching, watching how you do. They’re watching what you say. They’re watching how you act,” Duffy says. “You can’t just turn it on and turn it off. When you’re leading, you’re leading all the time.”
Leaders are appointed, but trust is earned. Hold yourself to the same high standards that you have for the rest of the team. When people see you setting a strong example, they will trust you and respect your integrity.
3. Become an adaptive leader
Duffy will never forget a leadership lesson he learned during his first two NASA missions, when he served as a pilot.
On his first mission, his commander had strong interpersonal skills, but was not as strong on the technical side. On his second mission, it was the exact opposite. His commander was a technical whiz, but he was weaker on the communication side.
So, on each mission, Duffy adapted his behavior to compensate for the strengths and weaknesses of the commander. “In the one case I tried to be technical go-to person, and in the other case, I tried to be the social glue to keep the crew together and keep everybody laughing and having fun,” he says.
Later, when Duffy became a commander, that earlier lesson helped him cultivate an awareness of his own strengths and weaknesses. He recognized he needed people on his team to balance out his own abilities. “I recognized that personally … I was a little better on the people side than on the technical side,” he says. “They gave me a really strong technical pilot on the flight. I think the chief of the astronaut office made a good decision … on how to make the team (stronger).”
Position your team so that each member’s strengths and weaknesses complement one another effectively. Also, look inward at your own abilities, and learn how to play to your own strengths effectively. An adaptive and self-aware leader bring out the best in people, which in turn earns their respect.
4. Go to bat for people
When Duffy was preparing to command his first mission, he faced a tricky situation. One member of his crew wanted the chance to do a spacewalk, even though he hadn’t been assigned one.
“He thought he was getting the short end of the stick because two of the other mission specialists were doing spacewalks, and he wasn’t,” Duffy recalls. “He thought he should have a chance at it.” This presented a dilemma for the first-time commander. Did he stick his neck out for his crewmate and ask his superiors at NASA to assign him a spacewalk? Or should he stick to the original plan, but risk having a disgruntled crewmate on his hands?
Ultimately, Duffy decided to go to bat for his colleague. He petitioned the chief of the NASA office on his behalf. In the end, NASA updated the mission assignments so that this crewmember could do a spacewalk.
For one thing, Duffy felt this was the right thing to do. He knew his crewmember might never get another chance to do a spacewalk, and he knew he was qualified for the task. But also, Duffy recognized that by fighting for his crewmember, he would earn his respect. This in turn would help the entire team function more smoothly.
“Had he been unhappy … I would not have gotten the performance out of him … that I did get,” Duffy says. “That was an important aspect of having an optimally functioning crew, optimal team, was to make sure everybody was engaged and (supported).”
Fight for people’s interests and give them the opportunity to rise to new challenges.
But don’t just fight for people’s interests for the sake of their ambitions. Ask yourself if this person is ready for this challenge. Will their contribution enhance the mission, or increase the risk of failure? If you do feel confident in someone’s ability to succeed at a challenge, then give them the opportunity to tackle it. It’s a calculated risk that can ultimately earn their trust.
5. Have a growth mindset when hiring
If you want to build trust and respect within your team, it helps to choose the right people to begin with. Look for people with a commitment to your mission and a genuine motivation to grow.
“I was on a number of astronaut selection boards where we interviewed people. It’s really easy to tell somebody’s motivation if you ask the right questions,” Duffy says. “What makes them want to do this? Is it going to be just an ego trip for them, or do they really want to be part of a team and make a commitment?”
Also, choose diverse team members that will challenge one another with different perspectives. “When selecting a team, you want to have diversity of thought. You want to have diversity of experience. You want to have old people, you want to have young people, because everybody brings something different to the team,” Duffy says. Diverse teams foster growth, because people are continually learning from one another’s different experiences.
There is always room for growth. Foster a culture of growth that encourages people to challenge and improve themselves. Also, acknowledge areas where you need to grow, and then actively pursue development. People will respect you when you work on your own growth and encourage them to do the same.
Leaders from NASA have established a strong collaborative culture that encourages cooperation across functions and business units. The uncommon dedication and high expectations of NASA has brought us valuable lessons that can be translated to today’s organizations. Immerse yourself in a culture of innovation and adaptive leadership, and find out how NASA can teach us how to lead from setbacks at our Apollo Experience.