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.

stew-friedman-nasa.jpg 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?

4 Responses to “Leadership Lessons From an Astronaut”

  1. Ramamurthy P says:

    Dear Stew,
    Some of the practices I can think of :
    1. Have some of the trusted people around, who appreciate the unique behavior/ideas/essence emanating from the person
    2. Appreciate similar behavior/essence/ideas seen in others


  2. Ramamurthy P says:

    Dear Stew,
    I would like to indicate an example for the point 1, I mentioned beofre-
    i.e 1. Have some of the trusted people around, who appreciate the unique behavior/ideas/essence emanating from the person

    As you might know, I have been going through TL and reading the initial chapters of your book. As part of that I have been trying to list out my values. While I was able to list out some of them, I did not have clear answer for others.
    The other day I have been talking to my daughter, Nandika – who is 7 years old and advising her that Character and Skills are the 2 important things in life. She asked me what is character and how would one start developing good character. I part of the answer I said that the values one believes-in has impact on the character.
    My daughter asked me what are the values; and immediately I picked your TL book and started explaining each of the values mentioned in your book. My daughter was able to understand each one of them and accurately describe what values I demonstrate.
    I was amazed at the power of values, power of kids’ wisdom (unbiased), and the Power of TL in action (i.e Family dimension helping to develop my self dimension).
    I am able to move forward in understanding and applying TL.


  3. Carlos Casanueva says:

    Hullo Stew,
    Riding my electrical bike to go to work during 30-40 minutes, helps me generate and keep my best ideas.
    Carlos Casanueva
    Madrid, Spain

  4. Dear Stew,

    Thanks for asking such a valuable question. The answers for me lies in the ability to distinguish what should be changed, and what should be preserved:

    1. There are things in life that I preserve and resist to change: My principles, values, ethics for social life, family, business, society, environment

    2. There are things I deliberatly change and run away from being scolastic: methods, processes, technologies, information, the way I do business etc.

    This is the same for a country, for a corporation, for a family or individual. Now the point is:

    >>> If you change what should be preserved, and preserve what should be changed: you can not survive!
    >>> If you change what should be changed, and preserve what should be preserved: you can be a successful leader 🙂

    I hope this point helps,


    I. Hakan YILMAZ
    Corporate Development Manager,
    Onur Group Hypermarkets, Istanbul

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