Leadership: When Vision and Passion Ignite

The large red numbers on the countdown clock glare in the Florida night. It’s an hour and a half until launch and seriously exciting to be here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. I can feel the gentle salt breeze on my face sitting on the bleachers with people whose passion is space.

In the distance and across the water is Launch Complex 41. Several miles away you can see the tall, white rocket and the white plume of coolant blowing off it. Several prudent miles away. The invite included: “inadvertent circumstance, hazards including debris, blast, and toxics could occur.”

As with all east coast launches, the rocket will get an added boost due to the direction of the earth’s spin. On board is special payload– a third-generation data communication satellite. The satellite is one in a series whose orbit is significantly higher than most—22,300 miles. It’s so high it will have a round-the-clock full view of the earth and will be used by the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope and NASA’s earth observing satellites for relaying data.

I take off my VIP pass, put on a sweater and glance at my iPhone where I’m watching (and enthusiastically showing anyone sitting nearby) the rocket up close via NASA T.V. It’s magnificent!

Throughout the spectator area are loudspeakers where we can hear people in the control center narrating about the rocket, the satellite and the fueling status in calm, even tones. I recognize one of the voices and feel proud to know him for all that he’s made possible And for something more. For the way he leads.

As I talk to people around me, and hear the part they played in bringing this to fruition, I feel like I know something so important.

And I do.

I know something about just how much it took for this massive project to become a reality.  It is a technological miracle that NASA has accomplished yet again. But much more than that it is a leadership and organizational feat. And that feat wasn’t just within NASA. It was a feat that included myriad strategic and business partnerships and alliances—each with their own unique blend of strengths and challenges—all coming together.

Finally, amid the calm voices over the speakers there is lift-off. An initial explosion off in the distance.  A bigger explosion, and then a bright fireball propels the rocket and its payload into the night sky—an utterly spectacular sight.

We watch it rise.

There is a delay as the sound travels the miles from the launch pad across the water then a deafening, thunderous rumbling washes through and over us. It is awe inspiring, and I feel proud to be a U.S. American. Somehow the rumbling brings the event and the pride all home–to literally feeling it in my bones.

Brand NASA

Most of the people sitting around me have played a role in what’s unfolding tonight. For some it’s a career first. For others, it’s another milestone in a series of career milestones.  NASA is where I have repeatedly heard people tell me: “I have the best job in the world.” It’s an identity, a brand—brand NASA, the premier space organization in the world. It’s about; what gets done. Big things. Exciting things Cutting edge things that change us now, and for generations to come.

Does NASA have issues every leader faces with his or her organization no matter your industry? Of course it does. Sometimes astonishingly so. Issues that can be tragic. That make the front pages of world newspapers. There’s no way to minimize mistakes of this scale and they are made all that much worse because even seeming technological and engineering failures often come down to leadership and organizational ones.

What NASA Has That’s Wildly Successful

But what NASA has that’s wildly successful when the leadership and organizational part right is a clear vision infused with and ignited by passion. The combination is like that satellite in geosynchronous orbit. It’s out beyond the muck and difficulties. It helps people transcend the difficulties that are part and parcel of any group of stakeholders working together toward an objective.

In contrast, have you ever been part of a company or team that isn’t in touch with a vision? There’s a type of paralysis. The board and CEO are at odds or the leadership team is a collection of people who aren’t aligned. Good people just can’t seem to pull together. Or you’ve got something worse than vertical silos between divisions, you’ve got horizontal organizational layers that are siloed with poor information flows and where coordination is broken between them. In short, parts but no whole.

A Clear Vision Doesn’t Solve Everything…

When there is that combination of clear, compelling vision and passion, however, people align in service of something much greater. A clear vision doesn’t solve everything but it lays the framework for lift-off–for industry-, community-, or world-changing accomplishments.  You’ll still have hard work ahead: the leadership that makes this happen will be up to you and those you lead.

We’re already a month into the first quarter of 2014. How are you, your team and company doing? Do you have a big, clear vision and does everyone around you know—really know—what it is? Sometimes those at the top forget to share their own passion in a way that ignites others’.  Sometimes we’ve spent a lot of time on the technical parts and haven’t spent enough time on aligning our people and processes. We can hit leadership and organizational snags as we move and evolve through the various stages of implementation. Keep an eye out for these avoidable pitfalls and address them. Do that while keeping your eye on the big vision—with passion!


U.S. Library of Congress ISSN 2164-7240

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