Shaping the Future by Learning from the Past

The engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center have a tough job – to build the biggest rocket in the world. However, it’s not only a technical challenge. They know that in the years it will take to build this giant, many things will change. Their budget, politics, the NASA organization, and especially their competition will change. But the leaders at Marshall have a critical advantage. Their predecessors faced a similar challenge in 1969: to put a man on the moon. How could they harvest NASA’s rich history to impact their project? They found their solution by learning adaptive leadership lessons from their past.

In 2016, Experience to Lead’s Owner, Dick Richardson, had an eye-opening moment. He was speaking to a group of NASA leaders in front of the bust of Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Von Braun was the brilliant rocket scientist who designed the V-2, the first long-range ballistic missile. He also created the Redstone rocket that put the first American into space. Ultimately, he created the Saturn V that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon. Yet, Richardson realized von Braun’s skills went way beyond rocketry.

“Here, I have all these executives from NASA. They’d looked at [von Braun] as a technical genius,” he said. But, Richardson concluded, it was von Braun’s adaptive leadership skills that truly got the Saturn V into the air.

An Adaptive Leader to Learn From

Von Braun was not only a brilliant scientist, but also an adaptive leader. He created the V-2 for Germany to deliver explosives during World War II. But his dream was to explore the solar system. He surrendered to the Americans towards the end of World War II because he concluded that he would be most successful at building rockets for space exploration in the United States. He also convinced 126 members of his rocket-building team to surrender with him. His decisions set the path for American dominance in space exploration.

In 2016, Richardson’s audience was on the cusp of a new era for NASA – the Space Launch System (SLS). While Apollo’s goal was to bring men to the moon, SLS’s goal was to bring astronauts into deep space. Technical skills alone couldn’t get them there — but learning lessons from the adaptive leadership skills of von Braun could. They had to change the culture of work at NASA in order to successfully complete the largest rocket ever built.

How did they do it?

The Adaptive Leadership Challenges of the SLS Team

During NASA’s Apollo era, the teams at NASA completed some of their most famous work. They sent six missions to the moon and 12 men walked its surface. They gathered a wealth of scientific data and even bolstered the mood of a nation.

The Apollo era teams were motivated. President John F. Kennedy had set a deadline of putting a man on the moon before 1970.  The United States was in a heated competition with Russia to get there first. They were excited to achieve something no one had ever done before. Because of these motivating factors, hundreds of thousands of employees worked together to meet NASA’s goals.

But in the twenty-first century, NASA’s motivating factors had changed. There was no longer political pressure for NASA to achieve a lofty space travel goal. In fact, depending on the current U.S. leadership, their rocket-building program could be cut back or canceled.

Also, the competition no longer came from Russia. It now came from U.S. commercial competitors, such as Blue Origin and SpaceX. Blue Origin focused on making space travel more frequent and affordable. SpaceX had goals of deep space exploration. How could the SLS team build a budget and a schedule when their funding could be canceled? How could they face technical setbacks if their commercial competitors succeeded?

Most of the leaders from the Apollo era have long departed NASA. Von Braun passed away in 1977. Yet the stories from the Apollo era are not lost.

Learning Adaptive Leadership from the Past to Build for the Future

After von Braun and his team surrendered, they developed rockets for the U.S. Army until President Eisenhower established NASA in 1960. At NASA, von Braun built the dreams of the space program using his adaptive leadership skills.

Consider the following characteristics of adaptive leadership. Instead of getting caught up in their own specialties, adaptive leaders take a wide and long view of their surroundings. Richardson wrote in his book, Apollo Leadership Lessons: Powerful Business Insights for Executives, “The bigger, deeper, and longer the evaluation is, the more thorough the scan and the better your ability to map out all the potential outcomes.”

The adaptive leader scans a variety of environmental factors such as current politics, demographic changes, economic events, competitors, and customers. He or she earnestly questions assumptions and looks as far into the future as possible. Then, the adaptive leader identifies many different possible paths and determines the one to take. Environmental change may force the adaptive leader to switch paths or create a new path in order to pursue the goal. The adaptive leader continues to evaluate and constantly makes adjustments.

“That’s how von Braun thought.” Richardson wrote. “He scanned his environment to try and picture all the possible outcomes, and then envisioned possible pathways to his desired result, taking action according to changes in his environment.”

Using Adaptive Leadership – Not Technical Skills – To Reach Goals

To use his adaptive leadership skills to build America’s space program, von Braun worked to change his image from a villainous war criminal into a beloved father of space travel. In the 1950’s, he published several articles in Collier’s magazine to promote peaceful space travel. He also leveraged television opportunities. This included the role of harmless scientist “Uncle Wernher” on the Wonderful World of Disney show.

When the U.S. was under pressure to launch a satellite and a Vanguard research rocket blew up on its launchpad, von Braun seized the opportunity and succeeded in launching Explorer 1. Now there would be no question – Von Braun was the savior of American space capabilities.

At NASA in 2016, the SLS team needed to know how to deal with setbacks and learn how to make decisions. “External pressures [such as the] budget, commercial competitors – these are all non-technical problems,” Richardson said. By looking at how von Braun adapted from his role as a German weapons developer into a space travel pioneer, the SLS team could learn the adaptive leadership skills necessary for them to overcome external pressures and work together to achieve their goals.

So, in front of the bust of von Braun, Richardson posed a question to the SLS team. “I tell them the story about Wernher von Braun coming to America and all the problems he faced and how he addressed those,” he said. “Then I say, ‘What can we learn from Wernher von Braun? Can you use some of Wernher’s ideas and approaches in the way you deal with your issue?”

Overcoming Challenges with Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is not a top-down type of solution. To apply von Braun’s adaptive leadership skills to your own team’s challenges, stop thinking of the boss as the one who makes the decision and drives others toward his or her solution. Instead, identify a problem, guide your leaders to discover a solution, and manage the stress of conflict along the way.

“Rather than providing solutions, you must ask tough questions and leverage employees’ collective intelligence. Instead of maintaining norms, you must challenge the ‘way we do business.’ And rather than quelling conflict, you need to draw issues out and let people feel the sting of reality,” wrote Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie in their article The Work of Leadership [Harvard Business Review, December 2001].

At NASA, the SLS team had the technical skills to build the world’s next giant rocket. They lacked the leadership skills to address the challenges they faced. But this wasn’t the first time NASA had these challenges. By applying the von Braun examples, the SLS team learned adaptive leadership.

They addressed the challenges that they faced. They could now use these lessons to adapt to future challenges and changes. Scheduled for 2020, Exploration Mission-1 of the Block 1 phase of SLS will bring astronauts farther into space than ever before. The team is sure to face challenges and can leverage the powerful adaptive leadership lessons from von Braun again.

Consider your company’s tangible successes. Using adaptive leadership, you and your team can plan the path to your next achievement – adapting to the environmental changes your company faces along the way.


Leading through change and being an agile leader in a rapidly changing environment are keys to success for today’s business leaders. At the Launch Point Leadership Experience, you will learn specific adaptive leadership skills that you can apply to your company’s goals. Understand how to build a culture of innovation, create networks to optimize collaboration, and manage the human side of change. Learn more about our Launch Point Leadership Experience.