Captain Mark Kelly is as plain-spoken, unassuming, and self-deprecating as keynote speakers come. Standing before the Inc. 500|5000 audience Friday in a jacket emblazoned with NASA patches, Kelly talked about his exploits during the Persian Gulf War piloting a fighter plane on an ill-conceived detour over Iran (he was almost shot down by his own side) and taking the shuttle into space four times.

Then, with quiet gravity he described listening to the news networks mistakenly report the death of his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in January 2011 while meeting with constituents outside a supermarket in Arizona. "I have flown 39 combat missions and by that time in my career I had flown three flights into space," Kelly said. "I thought I had the risky job. As it turned out, Gabby was the one [who] would nearly lose her life serving her country." 

Kelly didn't use the word "hero." But it was obvious that everyone in the audience was mentally applying it to both of them. 

Leadership Lessons

Throughout Giffords' arduous, ongoing recovery, which the couple chronicles in their new book, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, Kelly said he drew on leadership lessons learned throughout his long career. For example, as the doctor described the massively invasive surgery his wife would require, Kelly thought back to the poor decision-making at NASA that had resulted in two fatal accidents. Post-Challenger and -Columbia, NASA set up a conference room to facilitate good decision-making. One wall bears the warning "None of us is as dumb as all of us."

Determined not to let the medical team march off in lockstep, Kelly gathered all the doctors and residents in a small break room at the hospital. "At NASA, one thing I've learned is you can't ask the space shuttle commander or the flight director or the chief engineer their opinion first. You've got to seek out the opinion of the junior people," said Kelly. So he chose the youngest looking person in the room--an opthamology resident--and asked for her opinion on the injury and procedure. He then went around the room until everyone had had a chance to voice their views. Ultimately, the doctors performed the operation.

His Own Tough Decision

When Giffords moved to a rehabilitation center in Houston, Kelly began weighing a return to space. "It was probably the ultimate in trying to balance your work life and personal life," he said. The decision to fly one last flight would be in the best interest of his crew with whom Kelly had been training for years. "But it would not have been in the best interest of my wife," Kelly said. "I don't think people realize how much risk there is flying the space shuttle. It's almost the same amount of risk to your life as it was to a soldier who stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day. Every single flight has that amount of risk." Honoring what he felt was his duty to his crew and to his wife's personal dedication to the space program, Kelly chose to fly.  

(Kelly, who clearly loves flying as much as it is possible to love anything, peppered his talk with vivid accounts of space travel. "Imagine you are on a runaway train going down the tracks at a thousand miles an hour," he described the experience of liftoff. "And then you just keep accelerating. You feel every ounce of seven and a half million pounds of thrust.") 

Kelly also took lessons from his wife's courage. "The power of the human spirit is an incredible thing," he said. "Watching someone fight so hard to survive. And then watching [her] fight so hard to come back." As Giffords gets into the car each day to go to therapy, one of the last things she says to her husband is "Fight, fight, fight." "She reminds me each day to deny the acceptance of failure," said Kelly. 

Finding Inspiration & Courage

Giffords isn't the first strong woman from whom Kelly has derived inspiration. Growing up with a twin brother in working-class New Jersey, he watched as his mother, a secretary and waitress, trained to become a police officer in order to keep her increasingly wayward kids on the straight and narrow. Required to take a physical fitness test designed for a man, she had to climb over a wall that was 7 feet 4 inches tall in nine seconds. His father built her a practice wall in the yard, and "each night I would watch my mom go out there and just attack this thing," said Kelly.

After months of trying and failing, she took the test and instead of the nine-second limit, she made it over the wall in four and a half. "This was the first time in my life that I saw the power of having a plan, having a goal, and what it meant to work really hard," Kelly said. 

Kelly concluded by reading a note to the Inc. audience from Giffords--herself a former CEO of her family's tire and automotive business: "Be passionate. Be courageous. Be strong. Be your best. Thank you. And God bless America."