Paul Sean Hill, former flight director and director of mission operations for human spaceflight at Nasa, shares wisdom from the control room
What makes a great team?
A high trust environment in which everyone is free to engage in every discussion and second-guess every decision.
What traits do you look for when building one?
Competence first: do they know their stuff? Then: do they know the difference between what they actually know and what they only think?
Are they willing to accept new ideas and information? Can I rely on them to share their thoughts fully with me and the rest of the team?
How would you describe your own leadership style?
I align the team to a common mission or team-purpose, i.e. focus first on what we are trying to accomplish, and prioritise strategies and decisions on how well they contribute to that success.
After alignment on team-purpose, I insist on full transparency, usually phrased as, “All cards are face up on the table in every decision with the full team.”
This ensures everyone on the team is working towards the same goal and that we benefit from everyone’s talents and perspective.
What’s the greatest example of leadership you’ve ever witnessed from an astronaut crew?
During one of the first Space Shuttle missions to the International Space Station, the shuttle commander became concerned about the erratic behaviour of one of the astronauts who was intended to stay aboard the space station when the shuttle departed.
He sent me an email from orbit about his concerns, suggesting that Nasa may need to bring him home instead, which started an ugly kerfuffle that lasted several days.
This may seem small, but that kind of thing isn’t done. Yet his focus was on doing the right thing for the mission and for Nasa, not on keeping the peace among his fellow astronauts. He never hesitated.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
It came from a veteran flight director when I was training for the same role: “You can’t evaluate all of the data yourself or be the expert at everything – and you shouldn’t try. That’s why your team are here. Your job is to lead them. Stay deep enough in what they’re doing to ensure that they’re focusing on the right data, staying ahead of problems and finding opportunities.”
I relied on that advice more times than I can count as a flight director and as an executive, when I’d catch myself letting go of the big picture to “help” the experts before they were ready to help me.
Your advice to leaders for coping in a crisis?
Do not jump to conclusions and take a rash action that can make your problem even worse. There’s always time to blow up the rocket and get everyone killed, but you may only have one chance to keep that from happening.
Take inventory of everything you know, and use whatever time you have to get more information to fill in the blanks.
Share your thought process with the team and allow them to second guess you: why is this the right action in managing this risk, based on what information or logic?
What’s the most pressurised leadership situation you’ve ever been in?
The most pressurized real-time situation I led in flight was on March 17, 2001, when one of Space Shuttle Discovery’s cooling loops froze.
After our engineering support team informed us that it wasn’t possible, Mission Control spent an entire orbit maneuvering to warmer attitudes and turning on equipment in hopes of thawing out the system.
We knew at the time that if we failed, there was a great possibility that the ice would crack a critical part of the system giving Discovery a very small chance of surviving.
Our efforts to warm the system were successful. After landing, our friends in Florida confirmed that Discovery had water in the cooling loop, and it had indeed frozen during the mission.
How important is failure in forging great leaders?
More important than failure is the ability to objectively evaluate performance after any failure or success.
Over time, successful leaders can start believing their own reputations and concluding that their team is successful simply because of their leadership.
Leaders can then start cutting corners or making poorly thought-out decisions. Sometimes, a failure can snap us out of that, but even that requires a leader to be honestly introspective and own up to their mistakes.
In Mission Control training sessions, the entire team debriefed every run, whether the simulation ended successfully or not. In addition to openly discussing mistakes, it was common for some member of the team to explain how they could have done their part of a successful operation even better.
More important than the educational value, these candid debriefings reinforced the habit of always knowing why we take any action. These discussions were definitely crucial experiences in developing the many great leaders who came from Mission Control.
For a more personal example, after having led the very successful return-to-flight after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, I was regarded by many, including the astronauts, as persona non grata as a result of some of my leadership style.
Coming to terms with how this “triumph” was seen by many as a failure enabled me to take meaningful steps to improve as a senior leader and then to lead a similar transformation across the entire management team.
Which leaders that you worked do you admire?
To name only a few: John Pretz – He was a USAF Major when I worked for him as a young lieutenant before I came to Nasa. He had the greatest integrity of anyone I’ve ever known. I can’t imagine there’s any scenario in which John wouldn’t do the right thing or say what had to be said.
John Shannon – Former Shuttle Flight Director and Shuttle Program Manager. Great technical mind. He’s a master at keeping emotion at bay and leading teams through solving difficult and contentious problems.
Col Jack Anthony – A USAF liaison to Nasa during the Columbia accident investigation. He was a brilliant astrodynamicist who had the ear of Space Command’s top generals, and yet he could not have been more self-less in doing whatever he could to answer to my team’s needs.
Ginger Barnes – Retired Boeing Vice President and United Space Alliance CEO. Effortlessly kept every discussion on what she and her team could do to make the customer successful. Never flinched from accepting responsibility for problems and then doing something about them.
If there’s one Nasa trait that other organisations could take on board, which would you recommend?
Deliberate risk management. As Mike Griffin, Nasa’s administrator in 2005-09, likes to say: “Hope is not a strategy.”
Instead, always know how to answer the following questions: why are we taking this action? What could go wrong? Are we prepared for the most likely and most detrimental failures? If not, why do we think we’re doing the right thing?
Mission Control Management is out now, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Read Director’s interview with UK Space Agency chief executive here
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