Teaching Leadership

I recently finished reading From the Mission Control Room to the Board Room a new book from retired Flight Director Paul Hill’s, and found a lot of good personal and professional memories there. Paul was selected a Flight Director a few years after I was, and eventually became the head of the Mission Operations Directorate. I told people early on that we’d all end up working for Paul, and I was right – he is, and was, a dynamo of activity, and is able to work the big picture as well as he can get down in the bits and details of a complex operation, system, or flying machine. Paul retired from NASA a couple of years ago and wrote this book to show how the lessons learned in leading space flight operations can be used to lead and manage large corporations or groups involved in just about anything. He is using it in his work teaching those lessons through his company Atlas Executive Consulting (www.Atlasexec.com).

Flight Directors Paul Dye, Paul Hill, and Gary Horlacher in 2009 during STS-119 and ISS-15A.

One of the toughest things about becoming and staying a Flight Director was understanding and accepting the fact that despite being an ultra-high achiever just to get selected, you have to be able to take criticism and constantly work at improving your knowledge of leadership, management, and operations. Getting selected for the Flight Director office is like summiting Everest – then discovering that the view from the top is overwhelming – and that a misstep in any direction can send you plunging into an abyss. The only way to stay focused is to keep learning, and to accept that there is so much more to learn. In his book, Hill does a good job of showing how he continued to learn in order to improve himself and his organization throughout the trying years of budget and program cuts at NASA. This narrative shows not only techniques and methods for improving one’s leadership skills, but the journey of discovery that got Hill to those discoveries.

The Flight Director Office has always been described as one of the greatest leadership laboratories in the agency – and perhaps anywhere. As a product of that office, I’d have to agree, and I’d suggest that while there are many great ways to learn good leadership skills, having to deal with a massive project and thousands of people – and do it in an activity that requires split second decision making and involves significant consequences if you get it wrong – is a challenge unto itself. Hill captures many of the nuggets that got him there, kept him in the game, and allowed him to create innovative ways of looking at the process of leadership, and how to teach it. I have lots of leadership and management books on my shelf – this one will probably be the one that gets pulled down more often than any of them.