What do you read to lead?


Book Review of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Colonel Chris Hadfield

Colonel Chris Hadfield, author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, doesn’t set out to write a book about leadership or management and he certainly does not intend to provide a guide for nonprofits. Rather he tells his own remarkable, very personal story: the journey of a nine-year-old boy growing up in Canada, a country that at the time didn’t even have a space program, who becomes an astronaut.  His consistently witty, always entertaining and sometimes profound observations on the value of hard work, humility, and always sweating the small stuff can stand as lessons for us all.

The astronaut business is inherently, insanely dangerous, so he and his colleagues, men and women from a dozen nations, live by a golden rule: focus on what can kill you next. In space there is no place for abstract worries, or in fact for any worries. Preparation, rehearsal, training and teamwork leave you prepared for any eventuality you can possibly influence. And what about those eventualities you cannot influence? Well those are the ones that can indeed kill you, as happened in both the Columbia and Challenger shuttle disasters. So “be prepared to improvise” is more than a motto for astronauts, it is almost a religion. For example, upon docking with the International Space Station (ISS) in his Soyuz, Russian-made rocket ship, with his American and Russian crew mates, Hadfield, mission commander, finds they cannot open the hatch that will allow them to exit their cramped space to join other astronauts in the comparatively spacious ISS. Hadfield is especially anxious to make this link-up after three days in the toiletless Soyuz. After several hours of trying everything in the manual, with no success, he pulls out his Swiss Army knife and cuts away a fabric layer that is fouling the hatch. As he writes:  “Swiss Army knives are great. Don’t leave earth without one.”

Despite the obvious differences between space exploration and most nonprofit endeavors, Hadfield presents a view of teamwork and leadership that is instantly translatable. He call it “Strive to be a zero.” The people who become astronauts, and who prepare for it by first becoming fighter pilots and then test pilots, are, to say the least, hyper-competitive individuals. Hadfield says there are three possible types of people in any team: Plus-1’s who add real value to the team, Zeroes who are quietly competent and neither add to nor detract from the team, and Minus-1’s who tend to be prima donnas and detract from the team. I should note here that for Hadfield, the team is all about accomplishing the shared mission and surviving to get back home. So what happens when hyper-competitive people are thrown together? Well they all want to be Plus-1’s, of course. But those who try too hard wind up as Minus-1’s, viewed by their teammates as out for themselves rather than serving the team mission. Through quiet humility and hard work, striving to be a Zero, competent and helpful to your teammates, you are more likely to be perceived by your teammates as a Plus-1.

There is another moment in the book which I thought had real applicability for nonprofit leadership. At one point, on the ISS, a chemical leak requires an emergency spacewalk to diagnose and fix the problem before the Station goes dark from lack of power. As mission commander Hadfield wants to lead the two-person team but is told by Mission Control to stay in the Station and from there to support his crewmates, who will do the walk. Normally a spacewalk is prepared and rehearsed months or years in advance. This time they have twenty-four hours to get ready. It is going to be both mission-critical and dangerous, so Hadfield as commander feels he should go. But he doesn’t complain. Instead he throws himself into a supporting role, assembling all the gear for the walk, planning for contingencies, managing endless checklists, and keeping the Station itself in working order. Then he realizes: command is not about doing the most risky and exciting stuff, it is about supporting your crew mates in whatever job has to be done. More than a few harried, heroic, nonprofit CEO’s could learn from this advice.

An Astronaut’s Guide is an inspiring tale full of profound lessons for leadership in any environment, the value of teammates and family, and the human desire to achieve more than anyone thought possible. And that’s what the nonprofit sector is all about.

Enjoy this recording of Commander Chris Hadfield performing David Bowie’s Space Oddity while on board the International Space Station.

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