Five Lessons on Leadership from Rocket Scientists!

A year ago or so, I had the opportunity to visit the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota as part of a cross functional team from work. I have always been fascinated by space and wanted to learn as to how all of this was done.

I thought that I would learn a lot about how things are done there. However, I learnt a lot more about leadership! Here are five lessons on leadership that I learnt from the Rocket Scientists.

PSLV C25 Lifting into space

Lesson One:  Face Uncertainty

There are so many things that can go wrong when sending a rocket to space. And small mistakes can be costly and cause a lot of embarrassment. There is a lot of pressure to ensure the success of the mission. They face all of this uncertainty and pressure by creating back-up options for all processes and systems. If one fails, the other takes over!

Do we plan ahead and create adequate back-up people, processes and resources? Are we and our teams ready to face uncertainty?

Lesson Two: Mastery does Matter!

The engineers that we met had gone through a lot of training – both in the class room and on the job to become experts in their areas of focus. Besides having stellar educational records, they also had the passion and enthusiasm for the subject. You could see a spark in their eyes and it definitely did rub off on all of us! It was quite obvious that they had paid the price to get to this level of Mastery. They had spent time, energy and efforts to master their subject.

I was wondering as to how many of us take time to master our area of work! Do we spend time, money and effort to be truly called ‘Masters’ of our work?

Do check out the post that I wrote on Mastery here to read and think more about this!

Lesson Three:  Check It, List It, Do It!

There were checklists and project plans every where! And they had to be rigorously followed. After reading Dr. Atul Gawande’s ‘The Checklist Manifesto‘, I had already bought into the concept of checklists. So, it was an opportunity for me to validate what I learnt on checklists and project plans. Their plans were detailed and had check points during which different teams would coordinate with each other to ensure that they were not building train tracks in the opposite direction.

This lesson is really important for any leader. While we focus on reaching our milestones, we often forget to work with others who may have direct or indirect influence on us reaching our milestones.

For a moment, let us forget about project plans or checklists – do we at least have a prioritized, ‘living’ To-Do list written or typed down some where?

Lesson Four: A Mission Inspires!

The people that we met there were not motivated just by money. They could be, in fact, earning lesser than many in the Information Technology industry in India. All of them sparkled with enthusiasm for their mission and goals. They were proud to be a part of the organization and seemed to know that their role was important in achieving the goals of the organization.

Do we have a higher mission / purpose / goal in life? How about work? How about our teams? Can we inspire our teams to greater levels of contribution and performance through a higher mission / purpose / goal?

Lesson Five: Launch Before Launching

Every move and activity, except the actual launch, is tested and rehearsed repeatedly. While it may seem monotonous, it has been useful for them to identify problems and resolve them in a proactive manner. You can check out pictures of such ‘rehearsals’ where they rehearse the entire launch process here.

Instead of jumping into the fire, isn’t this a great approach? Like Tom Peters says, can we do ‘mini-projects’ or ‘mini-tests’ to validate our assumptions on a course of action? Would it not make us more innovative and successful?


Even with all of this in place, some launches do fail – but, there are a lot of success stories including the recent successful launch of PSLV-C25 as part of India’s Mars Mission. I hope we can take a lesson or two (or five?) from these rocket scientists to help us become better leaders!

What are your thoughts on this? Do any other ideas spark in your mind? Feel free to share in the comments!

Seven Ways to Lead During Challenging Times

It is easy to be a leader during good times – you just have to manage to not mess up anything and may be, things would go on well. However, challenging times are another story!

We discussed this topic during the October 2013 meeting of the “Chennai Leadership and Coaching” Meetup group that I organize. This blog post is a short summary of my thoughts on our discussion.

Photo by Anthea Brown shared via Flickr through a Creative Commons License

What could cause challenges for leaders?

Here are some reasons that could cause a challenging time for leaders like you and me:

  • Personal Issues
  • People Issues – within their team, with other teams, with their boss or peers etc.
  • Achieving or not achieving results
  • Environmental changes – in the industry, country and world, in general

While these are indeed challenges, there are ways to overcome or minimize these challenges to become a winning leader. So, here we go with the Seven Ways to Lead During Challenging Times!

Seven Ways to Lead During Challenging Times

1. Re-frame – Different words bring out different feelings and reactions within our brain. So, don’t think of your ‘Challenge’ as a ‘Problem’. When you frame it as a ‘Problem’, it evokes negative reactions that hinder solutions. Frame it as a ‘Challenge’ and it would be easier for you to march ahead and overcome it!

2. Slow Down – The usual instinct is to work harder and longer to get through a challenging time. However, hard work alone may not help you face challenges. Slowing down, reviewing what you are doing and thinking through the challenge would help you solve many issues faster than expected.

A leader that I work with uses the phrase “let’s sleep over this for a couple of days and then take a call” when faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable. Usually, within a couple of days, there is more clarity and the challenge begins to seem manageable!

3. Prepare – The best time to prepare for a challenging time is before we face the challenge. During good times, instead of being complacent, we should plan ahead and get knowledge, skills & experience that would help us lead during not so good times!

A good way to ensure that we prepare ourselves is to allocate ‘Quadrant Two Time‘ – time for planning, preparing, building relationships and innovating. These activities help us go outside our box and be ready for a future that is not so clear.

4. The Pareto Principle – Challenges may muddle up our minds. There may be too many things to do! Use the Pareto Principle – focus on 20% of the activities that can produce 80% of the results. Identify and work on these activities to achieve goals that would help you surmount challenges.

5. Long Term Vs Short Term – Leaders want to reach milestones quickly during challenging times and hence, may resort to short term thinking. While short term results are good and do bring temporary relief, it is important to remember that many organizations and individuals have ruined themselves by thinking only of the short term.

When you are taking decisions or planning, ask yourself “What would be the impact of my decision in three/ five / ten years?”. Asking this simple question, would lead you towards better decisions.

6. Get Help! – In today’s social and collaborative world, we are not alone. Others have had the same challenges that we are facing. You would be surprised to find all the help available, if you ask for it.

When I face challenges, I go to one or more of these helpful resources and people:

* My family, friends and mentors
* My team, peers and supervisors at work
* My extended network in Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora or Facebook (of late, Meetup is another network) and
* The Internet
* Books

These people and resources have helped me get through challenging situations. Hopefully, you have a similar network which you can tap into!

7. Assess and Evaluate – What cannot be measured, cannot be improved. Without knowing where you are and where you want to head, there is no way you can face challenges as a leader.

So, constantly measure where you are, move ahead in simple steps and celebrate small victories. Constant evaluation also stretches your mind and helps you reach goals that you once thought can never be achieved.


Challenges present themselves to leaders for a reason – challenges bring out the best in leaders. So, if you want to be a great leader, use these seven ways to face challenges and be a great leader!

Do you have additional thoughts to share? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Three feedback Questions (template) and Four Steps to Become a Better Leader

Feedback is the source for all learning and improvement. Without feedback, you cannot become better. Some of the people that I spoke to shared that getting feedback involved a lot of research and preparation.

My view is that feedback is a simple process which revolves around these three questions:

1. What am I doing well?
2. What can I do better?
3. Anything else that you would like to share about me or my work?

Getting answers for these three questions gives you a lot more perspective on yourself rather than a series of Likert-scaled questions!

I hear a cry from somewhere that this is not objective. Yes, it is not. Which is why, it is even better! Having a few numbers in questionnaires don’t make them objective!

If you want to get feedback as a leader from your team, peers or supervisors, I recommend the following four step process, which I have personally used and have used with leaders that I coach.

Four Step Feedback Process

Step 1 – Set the context

People usually don’t want to say anything negative about you – they want to keep the relationship going. So, share that you are interested in receiving feedback to help you become a better leader. Be open about answering any questions that they have. Assure them that their honest responses are welcome and appreciated.

Step 2 – Get the feedback

Print out these three questions and give it to the respondents to answer (to make it easy, I put together a printable template for you to download here). Ask them to not share their names and if you want to make it even more anonymous, keep a drop box near your desk or in your room for them to drop their feedback.

If you and the respondents would be comfortable with online tools, use a survey tool such as Survey Monkey, Google Forms, Survey Gizmo or any other survey tool available. Remember that these survey tools should allow you to get responses anonymously (the three tools mentioned above do help you get anonymous feedback).

Step 3 – Summarize the feedback and share your action plan

Once you receive all the feedback, summarize the top 5 things that you are dong well and the top 5 areas where you can do better, as perceived by the respondents. Call for a feedback summary meeting where you share these areas along with your action plan to become a better leader.

If these are areas where your actions or words have been incorrectly perceived, set the record straight during this meeting.

Step 4 – Implement the action plan and get feedback again

An action plan without action is a disaster. So, act on your plan and get feedback again, to check if the perception has changed.

With these quick four steps and short three questions, you should be able to get better feedback and be on your way to lead better!