David Leestma was falling. He had just stepped out of the Challenger space shuttle and suddenly he was plummeting toward the earth. He spun nearly 220 miles below. His heart pounded and his entire body tensed as he plunged through space, bracing himself for the worst.
At least, that’s what it felt like to Leestma when he began his first spacewalk in 1984. In fact, he wasn’t falling at all, but the sensation of falling was so powerful that for a few moments, his biological fight-or-flight reflex overrode everything he knew logically: that he was tethered to the shuttle, that he was protected by his spacesuit, and that he had trained extensively for this mission.
Despite all his training and experience, the stress of those first moments in space made him reel.
Most of us haven’t walked in space, but as a leader, chances are you have felt disoriented during times of extreme stress. There can be moments of almost visceral panic when leading a team through uncertainty or change, whether it’s an internal reorganization, a merger or acquisition, or an unexpected crisis that forces a shift in course.
Leestma, a former Navy captain and NASA astronaut who flew three space missions, learned how to keep his cool during the most stressful and high-stakes situations imaginable.
In addition to his shuttle missions, Leestma led large teams through periods of profound change, from technological disruptions to the agency-wide reevaluation of systems and procedures following the tragic failure of the Challenger shuttle in 1986.
Below are 5 valuable takeaways from Leestma’s experiences leading teams through change and disruption throughout his incredible career.
1. Practice humility
“Don’t be enamored with yourself,” Leestma says. “You’ve got be able to give credit to the team.”
This often means giving more junior people the opportunity to rise to challenges. Leestma cites the Apollo 11 landing, when the average age of the people working at the Mission Control Center was just 26 or 27.
“There are times when (people on your team) may not have all the experience you think that they should have,” he says. “But if they meet your other criteria: they’re confident, they’ve learned their lessons, they’ve shown that they can learn those lessons, and they persevere and they do things well, then put your trust in them and let them do it.
“It’s amazing what people can accomplish when [you] put [your] faith and trust in them, and they know that they’re being depended on,” he says.
The takeaway: When managing a team through change, it can be tempting to put pressure on yourself to have all the answers — especially when people are looking to you for guidance and reassurance. But during stressful times, recognize that you may not necessarily have the best solution to a problem. When you admit that to yourself you’ll open yourself up to others’ ideas. Then you can give others the chance to prove themselves in the process.
2. Don’t give in to panic
Leestma has been through some extremely stressful situations throughout his aviation career. He survived by keeping a level head and and falling back on his training and experience.
One harrowing day, he was doing maneuvers near the Arctic Circle. He and his team were tasked with intercepting some Russian bomber planes that were en route to Cuba. They needed to gather information about the bombers, including what kind of airplanes they were, and how many there were.
Leestma and his team managed to intercept the Russian planes without incident. But, the scary part came when Leestma had to land his own plane back on the ship through a layer of thick, low-hanging clouds.
“The ceiling where the clouds were was so low that we’re not going to see the ship until just before we land,” Leestma said. “[I was] going, ‘Oh, man.’”
To make matters worse, the ship had an electrical failure and lost its navigation aids, so people on the ship couldn’t tell exactly where Leestma’s airplane was. It would have been easy to panic in this situation, but Leestma kept a level head.
“So, when you get in these situations, you go right back to that training,” he says. “‘Okay, in this situation, I’ve gotta do this. I’ve gotta watch these instruments. My scan has gotta be going altitude air speed, lineup,’ all those kinds of things.”
His cool, methodical approach got everyone back safely.
“At the last second, we were able to … see the ship just early enough to make enough corrections and be able to land and get back onboard,” he says.
The takeaway: When leading and managing change, have confidence in your instincts as a leader. Trust that your training, expertise and past experiences have prepared you to handle a crisis.
3. Take a holistic approach to solving problems
Leestma learned some valuable lessons from the tragic Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986, including the importance of looking at the wider picture when solving problems.
“When you do your reviews to find out what was wrong, don’t just focus on the one little thing that you think you found with that. Look at the whole system,” he says. “When we did that, we found a lot of things that were on the margins and needed to be corrected to put in a much, much higher margin of safety.”
In the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy, NASA made many changes to their space shuttle system. Only about 5 percent of those changes related to the solid rocket boosters that had directly caused Challenger to fail.
“The other 95 percent were all the other things they found when they looked deeply at the whole system,” Leestma says. Who knows the number of setbacks they prevented by employing this perspective in their reviews.
The takeaway: When leading a team through change, there will always be challenges and problems to solve. In searching for solutions, don’t focus only on the specific problems at hand. Remember that they may be symptomatic of wider organizational issues.
4. Truly get to know your team
People want a leader they trust and respect to guide them through uncertain times. To earn that respect, a leader should take the time to truly get to know their team.
“You have to know those people. They can’t be just a name,” Leestma says. “Are they married? Do they have kids? Where were they educated? Where did they grow up? … And then, what have they done in the past? Have they done a good job with teams that they’ve worked on? What jobs that they had, how well did they do?
“When you know that, then you can put them in a situation where, if they need to learn some more stuff, you can put them in that position to get them that experience that they need,” he says. “Or, you can say, ‘No. Now I need you to do this. It’s because of what you’ve done in the past, I trust you to be able to do this.’”
The takeaway: Truly get to know and care about your employees. As a result, they will respect you and go the extra mile for you. This is crucial when leading a team through disruption.
5. Remember that your people are your most valuable asset
As NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program, Leestma recalls a valuable lesson he learned from the lunar landing.
“Apollo did some tremendously incredible things in a short period of time that have never been done before. It showed that people can do things,” he says. “When given the will to do something and the determination to get it done, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.
“The Lunar Module that landed on the moon had a total computer capacity of 80K. You cannot even send a picture on your phone to somebody with 80K,” Leestma says. “And yet all their guidance navigation control, site control systems, everything that they had to integrate to be able to land successfully on the moon was done on board that computer.”
For Leestma, the original Apollo mission is an example of the power of human ingenuity and innovation when faced with relatively limited resources.
The takeaway: When leading change management, one of your greatest assets is the creativity and resourcefulness of your team.
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.