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Review: Leadership Moments from NASA

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Leadership Moments from NASA: Achieving the Impossible
by Dave Williams and Elizabeth Howell
ECW Press, 2021
hardcover, 328 pp.
ISBN 978-1-77041-604-8

Over the course of more than six decades, NASA has provided plenty of examples of leadership, good and bad. Many of those cases are well known even outside the agency, from the successful return of the Apollo 13 astronauts to the losses of Challenger and Columbia. There are, though, many more events within the agency, at large and small scales, that can provide insights on management and leadership.

“There is no specific formula for success as a leader. Perhaps that is why there are so many books, seminars and courses dedicated to the topic,” write Dave Williams and Elizabeth Howell early in their new book, Leadership Moments from NASA. Williams is a Canadian former astronaut who flew on two shuttle missions, while Howell is a veteran space journalist. The two combine a review of NASA’s history with Williams’s own experiences as an astronaut and NASA manager to distill leadership lessons.

“You can’t change the culture by changing the culture,” Rothenberg says in the book. “You’ve got to change the value system, what they want to do, their motivations, and then the culture will change.”

The book follows roughly a chronological path, starting with the early days of NASA through the shuttle and station programs. (The book focuses primarily on NASA’s human spaceflight programs, rather than robotic missions.) They include some of the big events in the agency’s history but some lesser known or appreciated ones, like efforts to salvage the space station program in the early 1990s. Williams offers more personal lessons from his time training for his second shuttle mission in 2007, which included spacewalks outside the International Space Station. “It takes time to build peak-performing teams. That is particularly true for spacewalks,” he recalls of the extensive training and preparation required for those EVAs.

And so what are the leadership insights that emerge from the book? A lot of it is fairly straightforward stuff: the importance of building trust, of open communications, of giving and accepting feedback without taking it personally. The authors distill the lessons from each chapter in a bulleted list at the end, but when extracted from the subject matter those insights can seem almost banal: “Great leaders value discourse,” says one, while another recommends, “Fix small problems before they become big problems.”

At the end of the book, Williams and Howell grapple with the perennial issue of “culture” in organizations. When it comes to NASA, former administrator Mike Griffin says that the agency has an “engineering culture,” which he defines as one that “settles arguments with a fact-based discussion.” That requires an organization where topics and be debated and argued, but where “you don’t keep score and people don’t take it personally,” as former Johnson Space Center director Jefferson Howell puts it in the book. But even Griffin acknowledged that hasn’t always been the case at NASA.

“You can’t change the culture by changing the culture,” Joe Rothenberg, former Goddard Space Flight Center director, says in the book. “You’ve got to change the value system, what they want to do, their motivations, and then the culture will change.” That is, perhaps, one of the strongest leadership insights to come from a book, but also perhaps one of the most difficult to implement.

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