The new class of astronauts who NASA introduces on Friday are carrying some big hopes on their shoulders. They are the first astronauts to graduate under Artemis, a program that intends to land the first woman on the moon and the next man by 2024. The moon is a stepping-stone for what comes next--sending astronauts to Mars.
The thirteen-member class includes two astronauts from the Canadian Space Agency and eleven from NASA. The U.S. space agency selected the eleven men and women from a record-breaking number of applicants--18,353. Identifying the skills that helped these astronauts make the cut will help you become a more successful team leader.
This week I spoke to James Picano, a NASA psychologist who was significantly involved in the selection and training process. Although NASA keeps the details of their psychological assessments a closely guarded secret, Picano did share information on the kind of skills NASA looks for in potential leaders.
They can put aside their differences for the sake of a mission.
With six women and seven men, the new class of astronauts are the most diverse in NASA history. They'll also be required to work closely with counterparts from Japan, Russia, and other countries who live and work together on the International Space Station.
"It's one thing to work well with members of your own culture. It's quite another to be able to work effectively cross-culturally, too," says Picano. "Our astronauts are great at forming cohesive crews regardless of who's up there. I'm always impressed with the degree to which a crew forms an effective bond with one another."
The astronauts who make the cut are those who can put aside their individual and cultural differences for the sake of the mission. Their survival depends on working effectively--not as individuals with their own interests--but as 'spacefarers' pursuing a common goal.
Retired astronaut Scott Kelly commanded the International Space Station for an entire year during his final mission. In an interview for the Harvard Business Review, Kelley said cross cultural collaboration is a fundamental key to leadership. "At the end of the day, I'm a NASA astronaut. I represent the U.S. government. But I do feel an extension of the civilization of planet Earth, representing all the people."
Great leaders don't highlight differences; they look for strengths.
They're excellent communicators.
Several members of the new class of astronauts have PhD's in the hard sciences. Others have flight experience and military backgrounds. But they all have to be excellent communicators.
"They have to be able to translate highly complex systems into everyday language that people can understand. That's a real skill," says Picano.
Astronauts are the face of NASA to the public. They must be able to translate their work into 'everyday language' to explain the benefits of the mission and to inspire the next generation of explorers.
In many ways, NASA astronauts must engage a diverse group of stakeholders much like business leaders are required to do back on Earth. Big data, AI, and other complex technologies touch nearly every organization today. Effective leaders act as translators and offer clear explanations to a wide variety of audiences.
They know when it's time to lead and when it's time to follow.
An astronaut's job is highly complex. They have to recognize when it's time to take a back seat on a particular assignment because someone else might be better suited for the task.
"A good leader has to be a good follower," says Picano. "Effective leaders have confidence because people draw inspiration from their leaders, but they're humble enough to know when someone else needs to lead and they have to support."
In the interview with astronaut Scott Kelly, he talked about how astronauts who make the cut demonstrate this skill early on. "They work well together. They're good teammates. They're good followers. So, the potential for conflict is very low." In space, teamwork is everything because one wrong move--or one person's failure-- could be catastrophic.
Having the 'right stuff' to be an astronaut goes beyond science, military, and technical experience. Although leadership and communication are considered 'soft skills,' Picano believes they're the harder skills to master--and fundamental to the success of a mission.