Leadership Lessons From an Astronaut

A few days ago, while on a break from leading a workshop at NASA's Johnson Space Center for members of its management team (including director and former astronaut Mike Coats), I had the special privilege of touring the cavernous Building 9, which houses a mock space station, space vehicles, and other amazing things.

In addition to the thrill of seeing first-hand these mind-boggling inventions and how they're being used in our space program, I had a remarkable opportunity to chat with NASA Astronaut David Wolf, who happened to pass by. He was carrying a bundle of white cloth with various instruments attached to it, and I asked him what it was. He explained that this was part of his suit and that its purpose was to retain his body's heat while walking in space; a task he'll be doing (not for the first time) in April.

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It's critical, he said, to retain every single BTU of heat your body produces, because it's very cold out there in space and you won't last long if you lose your heat.

Reflecting on this basic fact during my relatively pedestrian plane ride home from Houston, I realized anew how important it is to hold on to what naturally emanates from you in order to survive as a leader. Just as your body produces the heat you need to live in space, your head and your heart produce the ideas and emotions -- unique to you alone -- that you need to retain as a leader down here on earth.

Everyone who aspires to lead -- to mobilize people towards valued goals -- needs buffers like that gauzy cloth in order to protect those parts of ourselves that make us unique as leaders. For some of us, it's those most trusted people around us who serve this function, feeding back to us what they observe about who we are, what we stand for, and what we must hold on to for dear life. For others, it's cherished moments of solitude that allow us to focus on those aspects of our selves that are most precious and that we require as part of our leadership identity.

So here's today's question for you: What method do you practice to ensure that you have a protective layer that retains what emanates from inside of you, that essence of who you are that your life as a leader requires?

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