Tough Calls & Big Risks: Mark Kelly's Decision-Making Tips
Captain Mark Kelly is more than a world traveler; he’s traveled the universe. Since joining NASA in 1996, Kelly has piloted or commanded four different space missions. Then, in January 2011, his own world was turned upside-down when his wife, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was the target of an attempted assassination in Tuscon. Kelly spoke to Inc. reporter Jillian D’ Onfro about personal tragedy, taking risks, work-life balance, and making hard decisions.
How did you balance your work at NASA with your family?
I didn’t. You try to live a balanced life, but preparations for a mission are all consuming in the months leading up it, so life isn’t very balanced. I’m trying to make up for that now, and I certainly tried to make up for it between missions. My wife Gabby was better at balancing. She was able to transition from "work mode" into "family and relationship mode" and back very quickly.
Space travel has a lot of inherent risks. How did your family handle you risking your life on each mission?
We would talk about everything that could go wrong, but they also knew how important it was for me to do it. Everything is a calculation, risk versus reward. We had about a one in fifty chance of dying with every single shuttle flight. Three of my classmates were on Space Shuttle Columbia when it crashed. The night that that accident happened, the husband of one of the crew members didn’t go home, he came to my house. My kids remember that day very vividly. But even more than the reward, for me going into space was for this country.
Ironically, it was your wife that nearly lost her life after an assassination attempt.
Things can change for any of us very fast. I became aware of that immediately. Your whole life could be turned upside down in an instant. Over the last year and a half, I’ve met many people who share their own life-changing moments--the car accident, the stroke, or the heart attack. For us, our lives are totally different now. I used to be an astronaut, and Gabby used to be in Congress. Careers come and go, but those family members that are close to you matter more than anything. It’s important to understand that, and realize that the relationships that you have and how you approach your work and your family is really important.
How agonizing was the decision to pilot the Endeavour mission while your wife was recovering?
That was hard. Right after Gabby was injured, I called my boss and said, "You’ve got to find a replacement." She was in a coma in Tuscon, and for all I knew she could be there for six months or a year. But then Gabby came out of her coma and needed to be moved to a rehab hospital in Houston. After we moved her, I started thinking about possibly getting my job back. I wondered, “Would this be the right thing to do?” I had been spending most of my time in the hospital, sleeping in the hospital, but I’d been training with this group of people for this mission for two years. And we knew each other really well, and it was certainly in their best interest if I was the commander, not some guy that came in at the last moment. But the hard thing was: What would Gabby want me to do? I didn’t have to think about it very long. She would not want me to pass up one final space flight.
What advice can you offer about making such a tough decision?
In making big decisions, it’s best to wait and gather more information, so that you can make an informed decision rather than making a quick one that you regret later. I put too much weight in making a gut decision. My inclination is to try to make decisions quickly, but I realize that that’s not always the right thing to do. Now I consciously try to delay important decisions. But not procrastinate—that’s an important distinction. Gather all the information you can, but why not wait a couple more days, or weeks, and see if things change?
How important is decision making to becoming an effective leader?
I always tried to get the most out of the people that worked for me. I would tell my crewmembers, that I didn’t like “Yes” men or women. I used to require them to question my decisions. I saw a lot of people in charge that felt like everybody needed to listen to them all the time. I think that it’s an ego thing. I was always happy to listen, and discuss things, and maybe decide to do things a different way. It all goes back to what I said earlier about gathering all the information. I think that that’s really an important quality for a person in charge.
Do you have any predictions for the future of space travel now that NASA’s shuttle program is discontinued?
We retired the space shuttle and the Constellation program with the hope that small companies--like SpaceX, or Sierra Nevada, or Blue Origins--would be successful in getting people into space again. Two years ago I was skeptical, but now I think that they’re on the road to success.
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