NASA Researchers Learn Leadership As a Way of Being

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 51, No. 6 November-December 2008 pp. 66-67.

The most innovative technology project teams are not traditional hierarchies with an autocratic leader and docile followers. Rather, they are more like heterarchies where leadership shifts according to who has the relevant knowledge at a particular point in the cycle of creation. But until all technical professionals become skilled at getting their ideas across and enhancing or criticizing the ideas of others without causing friction, even heterarchies will need leaders who infuse a can-do spirit of initiative and collaboration.

Most people are not born with these leadership skills. Research by myself and others shows that scientists and engineers, in particular, tend to be natural introverts, wary about what they can expect from people. They tend either to be too hard on people, overly demanding of themselves and others, or too soft and withdrawn, not making it clear what they need from others.

To transform them into leaders for heterarchy calls for a form of alchemy, like turning lead into gold. And that is exactly what Gail Williams and her associates at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center have shown to be possible in a nine month program called, appropriately, "Leadership Alchemy." It includes individual and group learning, including coaching by staff and peers. The time commitment varies from 15 to 30 percent of a participant's working time.

I have met twice with Gail and graduates of the program who have described what they've learned and how it has made them better leaders. A little over half of those I met were women, and although the male graduates were equally enthusiastic, the program has had an exceptionally positive impact on women, including some with contrasting personalities.

Bolder, More Courageous

One woman said the program made her bolder, more courageous. She developed a stronger presence and clarity about giving directions. She learned how to encourage her team and also when and how to say "no". Instead of responding to the ideas of team members with "I don't know, but...," she became clear in her responses, whether positive or questioning.

Another woman said she learned to be softer, more willing to listen and collaborate, to accept that others had relevant knowledge. She said, "I'd been to many leadership programs and was told I was too hard, that my standards were too high. I'd leave these programs feeling worse. But in Leadership Alchemy I learned I can choose to be as I want to be, and that I can forgive myself and others when we don't meet the standards I set."

The program graduates I met, both women and men, have learned to manage a team's mood, to accentuate the positive and inject energy into a group, especially when people have felt insecure in the midst of disruptive change. Marc Imhoff who leads an important earth science mission at Goddard said that the Leadership Alchemy changed his basic attitude to people. Before, he struggled with pessimism, was often impatient with people, and tended to be autocratic. Then, he learned that "cynicism is not the same thing as wisdom". He practiced giving people in his group permission to teach him. He realized that to be an effective leader, he had to be a good follower. He told me that it became clear to him that a philosophy of command and control doesn't work well with scientists and technical staff, especially the younger ones. To gain great results, to engage people in a common purpose and shared vision, a leader needs to avoid a negative attitude and create optimism and enthusiasm.

What's the Magic?

How is this psychological alchemy achieved? What's the magic? The basic assumption of the program is that leadership is more than what a person knows. It has to do with a person’s way of being. Leadership development is personal development, focusing on body, mind, and emotions. Participants are challenged to envision who they want to become and are supported and gently pushed in that direction by peers and coaches.

To illustrate the emphasis on mind and body, attention training is one of several somatic practices that focuses on one's breathing as a factor in becoming fully present, especially in difficult situations. This is essential for listening to others and creating trust that they are heard and appreciated.

The program also spotlights the language people use, sharpening it to become more precise and also making participants more aware of its impact, how they are heard, the effect of what they say. They also become aware of how they sound, their tone of voice and its impact. Participants also learn the importance of sensing the right time to connect with people.

One purpose is to make these leaders into what the MIT psychologist Don Schoen termed "reflective practitioners." self-aware, questioning the reasoning for their opinions and able to change them when they are contradicted by new information and experience.

To pull participants out of their habitual ways of being, the program invites them to try out the kinds of archetypal roles first proposed by the Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung:

  • the warrior who injects a fighting, competitive spirit into the team psyche.
  • the wise king who resolves conflicts by hearing out all parties. (Imhoff described how he used this ability effectively.)
  • the lover who pulls people in, supports and affirms them.
  • the magician-sage who inspires with bold, innovative visions.
  • the fool who lightens up the atmosphere, diffuses tension, sparks some fun at work.

Testimonials Draw Participants

Without any marketing, the program recruited participants through testimonials from graduates like Imhoff. A number of scientists applied after seeing an early graduate calmly facilitate a contentious meeting where the others were off balance and starting to lose their cool.

Leadership Alchemy seems to me an ideal program, not only for research technology project leaders, but for all technical team members in an organization like NASA. For a team of people from many cultures, education about different national values would enhance the program. And if the goal included developing strategic leadership for change, it would be useful to learn how to design an effective social system, including the relationship between organizational roles and personality. As I have written before the most effective leaders for change demonstrate strategic intelligence, including foresight, visioning with systems thinking, motivating, and partnering. It's a good bet that Leadership Alchemy would make many of the best strategic thinkers even more effective.



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