The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Bolden and Obama
Charles Bolden may lack the “deep technical expertise” of his predecessor, but still may have the leadership skills needed to manage the space agency in this critical time. (credit: Pete Souza/White House)

Just who is qualified to lead?

The recent selection of General Charles Bolden, if confirmed by the Senate as soon as this week, was the culmination of a search to find a leader for NASA. With the growth of the Internet, this search was probably the most widely scrutinized search for a new leader in agency history. Several trial balloon nominees were floated, with strong reactions quickly given, eliminating some candidates in short order. It also begs the question of how do we figure out who is qualified to be our leaders at every level in both government and the private sector.

Webster’s dictionary defines “Lead” as a transitive verb 1 a: to guide on a way especially by going in advance b: to direct on a course or in a direction or as an intransitive verb 1 a: to guide someone or something along a way. There are other definitions but these will do for what I want to write about.

With the growth of the Internet, this search was probably the most widely scrutinized search for a new leader in agency history.

By the accounts I have read, Bolden was Senator Bill Nelson’s choice for NASA administrator. According to many accounts, Senator Nelson used some coercive persuasion to convince the President that Bolden was the right choice. Whether in government or the private sector we go through some less than efficient methods to pick our leaders. There are some common threads on how we do this. One of the most common methods is to pick someone who is familiar and relates to the people who are making the selection. This has quite often resulted in picking only people from the “good ol’ boy” network. As much as we like to talk about the ideal of equal opportunity and people advancing by merit, we quite often resort to cliques.

Take for example how we pick our top leaders. Each of our last four presidents received at least one degree from Harvard or Yale. Eight of our nine current Supreme Court justices received their law degrees from Harvard or Yale. The exception, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, started at Harvard and finished at Columbia. If Sonya Sotomayor, a Yale Law School graduate, is confirmed as the replacement for the retiring David Souter; the count will not change. It would seem that the first primary our future leaders have to pass is the selection processes by the admissions boards of these two educational institutions. The alumni of these institutions obviously wield inordinate influence on who can position themselves for a run at top leadership positions in this country. I have a hard time believing that there are no graduates from the hundreds of other universities around the country that are qualified any more to get into the rarified club of presidents and supreme court justices. We trade one lack of diversity for another.

Being able to climb the leadership ladder starts with networking with the people in power in the organizations you want to advance in. It is the core reason for the existence of fraternities and sororities and many professional organizations. It is also a reason for the existence of alumni clubs and country clubs. It is a way to network and socialize with those that we have something in common with. We seem to have a strong need for the familiar.

The New York Times in their May 28, 2009 editorial “Nominees for the Space Agency” was less than positive on the selection of Charles Bolden because his background did not follow the formula they think is the only way you can become qualified to lead a government agency. His résumé, starting with flying more than 100 combat missions in Vietnam, becoming an astronaut, serving as pilot on two shuttle missions and commander on two more, followed by returning to the US Marine Corps, his role in the command structure of Operation Desert Thunder, and rising to the rank of major general, doesn’t seem to rank as high as a lack of “deep technical expertise” in the eyes of the newspaper. In listing his major résumé items they failed to list that he returned to the Marine Corps and rose to the rank of Major General with major command responsibilities. I suspect that the Marines don’t hand that rank and the responsibilities that go with it to just anyone. The paragraph that irritated me the most is as follows:

Although he has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in systems management, his skills are primarily operational. He lacks the deep technical expertise that enabled the previous administrator, Michael Griffin, to second-guess NASA’s own experts and those from industry.

The above condescending passage was one of a number that I thought were ill-conceived. Another line that bothered me was “Moreover, his military background could blur the distinction between civil and military ventures in space.” Wasn’t it another general named Dwight D. Eisenhower that warned of the growing power of the military-industrial complex? First of all, there already is some overlap between civil and military ventures in space. Many of us civilians use military GPS every day. The military and the National Reconnaissance Office have used NASA’s TDRSS satellites to relay data from their satellites. Military officers serve as NASA astronauts. Assuming that Bolden will want to increase the links between NASA and the military because he was in the military is an assumption based on no evidence. The comments of the New York Times show deep-seated prejudices as to who can be a good or even great leader. It is no different in my mind than the thought process that leads to other prejudices based on race, gender, age, and so on.

Almost every position in life requires some leadership ability, some much more so than others. So how do we make sound choices for selecting people for any position? First of all we have to accept that we are not always going to get the best candidate for every position for many reasons. Second, we have to be open to the idea that a variety of career paths can produce a great leader for any organization. People tend to make judgments on who is good for a job based on very small samples of data. It’s an intellectually lazy way to make important judgments.

Bolden may not have the “deep technical expertise” of a Michael Griffin, but there is no reason to suspect that after his years in NASA he doesn’t understand the fundamentals of how NASA operates and what its various missions are.

In my life I have had a chance to meet some phenomenal leaders that have ranged from CEOs of multibillion-dollar corporations, to a legendary NFL quarterback, to scientists and engineers with breakthrough accomplishments, to Little League baseball coaches and to skilled laborers on factory shop floors. Some of the business leaders I have run into have reached the top of their organizations without college degrees. What these people who succeeded wildly in leadership positions had in common weren’t easily identifiable résumé checklist items. It was a set of more intangible qualities that fit the organization they were trying to lead at the time they were needed. The main quality these people have in common is that they were able to earn the respect and trust of the people they were leading. How they did this varied as much as the occupations these people were or are still in. Most of them, but not all, did excel in some of the technical skills required for their path to the top. It is quite often a key in building respect in colleagues.

Being able to select someone with the best leadership skills for the head of an agency is in large part an art. Nobody will get it right every time. There is no one career path that is the only one that can create the right leader for an organization like NASA. Sean O’Keefe was picked at a time when NASA’s financial management had been a mess for years. Picking someone with a strong financial background was needed to straighten out the books of the agency. Michael Griffin was picked for his “deep technical expertise” and yet his decisions are controversial and many may be reversed after the Augustine Commission releases its report.

Lee Scott, the recently retired CEO of Wal-Mart, told Charlie Rose on PBS that he wouldn’t want the job as CEO of one of the failing auto giants because he knows retail and not the design and manufacturing processes that are involved in the auto industry. It can take many years to understand an industry and why it does things certain ways. That is why I seriously question the choice of Ed Whiteacre, the former CEO of AT&T, as the new CEO of General Motors by President Obama. His comment that he knows nothing about cars is disturbing at a minimum. At a time of crisis to bring in someone completely unfamiliar with the industry seems like a big mistake. The learning curve on how the industry operates is too steep and will consume too much time before he can be effective in making decisions.

I don’t think the same can be said about Bolden. He may not have the “deep technical expertise” of a Michael Griffin, but there is no reason to suspect that after his years in NASA he doesn’t understand the fundamentals of how NASA operates and what its various missions are. I also suspect that pilot training, experience in combat, astronaut training, commanding two successful shuttle missions, and rising to the rank of major general both builds on and reveals strong leadership abilities. Bolden’s biography on Wikipedia is worth reading for anyone that wants to make up their own mind on his selection.

A few years ago Ford Motor Company came to the conclusion that they needed to shake up their organization with new leadership. They went outside the traditional path and hired Alan Mulally from Boeing to take over as the new CEO. Mulally wasn’t an auto industry insider, but Ford and Boeing have an interesting connection. In another time of crisis in the auto industry Ford introduced the Taurus and basically saved the company with a new product and new ways to manufacture it. After they recovered, Boeing was in a tough spot and needed to reinvent the company. Contacts grew between the two companies and Ford shared many of the lessons they learned with Boeing and helped them restructure their operations. For both companies it was recognizing they needed to change rapidly in a smart well thought out direction to survive. For both companies it meant fresh ideas from outside the norms of the industry.

General Motors has a reputation for a culture that stifles changes in the way they do business. Several times GM has brought in executives from outside the auto industry to shake up their corporate culture. These executives usually quickly have thrown in the towel, and leave thinking that change at GM is just about impossible. My experience twenty some years ago dealing with GM was no different. It has left GM in a position where they will die without massive government aid to resuscitate them. If that culture does not change, the bailout money will only ruin an industry by weakening Ford, the company that has been willing to change.

A résumé can show the results of leadership ability, but it usually doesn’t list the qualities that create the results.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board came to the conclusion that the culture within NASA was one of the key factors in the Columbia accident. Operating cultures in large organizations are very difficult to change. If a fraction of the people writing in the blogs claiming to be current NASA employees are to be believed, the culture that created the problems leading to the Columbia accident hasn’t changed much. If that is the case it is time for a major shakeup of the agency. My hope is that Bolden, armed with the recommendations of the Augustine Commission, will have the mettle to shake up NASA.

A big part of leadership is knowing when to use different techniques to encourage, chastise, and cajole people into accomplishing a mission. When a team is making great progress towards a goal it may be time to do little other than offering praise and encouragement to make sure the progress continues. When a team is failing it gets a whole lot tougher. It is possible that in both situations, success and failure, that the leadership of a team might not understand why it is getting the results that are coming through.

Nearly thirty years ago my brother and I had a chance to sit down for twenty minutes and talk with Bo Ryan, the current head coach of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. At the time he was the assistant coach of the team who had been asked to stay on temporarily while the university searched for a replacement for the just-fired head coach. I left that meeting convinced that the school was making a big mistake by not hiring him immediately as its next head coach. History will back me up that my assessment at the time was right. Coach Ryan left the University of Wisconsin and took over as head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and turned around a struggling NCAA Division III team. In the nineties he coached the team to three Division III national titles and was the winningest coach in all of college basketball for the decade. When he came back to the University of Wisconsin as the head coach, he quickly improved the team and has won three Big Ten Championships.

Bo Ryan quickly showed me the qualities I have seen in one form or another in the leaders I respect in many fields. He is very knowledgeable about the game of basketball and expresses himself clearly with great confidence and some humility. His book on the swing offense he developed at UW-Platteville is sitting on the office shelf of almost every major college basketball coach. He is very good at assessing the capabilities and potential of his players. He knows how to pull the maximum results out of his players. He doesn’t ask a shooting guard to post up a seven-foot center. Nor does he ask a seven-foot center to bring the ball up the court unless he knows he can handle it. He takes great care in picking his assistant coaches. The people I know who played for him at UW-Platteville have nothing but kind words for him and greatly appreciate the experience. What I saw in Coach Ryan, and what I’m hoping Senator Nelson saw in General Bolden, are the intangible qualities of leadership that can lead to great success for a team whether it’s in sports or space exploration.

A résumé can show the results of leadership ability, but it usually doesn’t list the qualities that create the results. There is no one style of leadership that is the best. A leader like Franklin Roosevelt was well suited to pull the country through World War II. He most likely would not have been qualified to lead the Manhattan Project, where General Groves quickly gained the respect of the nuclear scientists in part by catching and correcting a math error in a complex problem they were trying to solve.

Pending confirmation, Bolden will have some tough issues to tackle. If the Augustine commission selects EELVs as the way forward and President Obama concurs, he will have to bruise a lot of egos and ease Marshall Space Flight Center out of the launch vehicle design business. He also will have to decide how hard to push for the COTS-D program over the objections of some members of Congress. He will have to deal with a blogosphere looking over his shoulder on every decision. He will have to become immune to criticism and yet pay enough attention to it to try to figure out when it’s legitimate. Some people will look at the daunting challenges of leading a large organization with conflicting interests from the administration, Congress, the public, and even within the agency, and think nobody in their right mind would want the job. This isn’t the case with a good leader. A good leader will want to take on the challenge even knowing that they might fail and take the blame for it. Those who don’t want the challenge will never understand it.

The next ten years can finally set the course for human exploration and expansion beyond low Earth orbit with wise decisions. It could possibly be looked upon as a major turning point in human history for centuries to come. It is important that we put the best, well-suited leadership team in place so we don’t screw this up. Based only on what I’ve read, I’m fairly confident that a good choice has been made for NASA administrator regardless of the backroom political dealings that have been done to get us here. Only time will tell if my assessment is right, but I’m willing to give Bolden a chance and I’m asking people to give him a chance and base their opinions on the results after a reasonable amount of time has passed. I want to see the New York Times proven wrong almost as much as I want to see NASA succeed.