Lines for Leaders: Rocket Surgeon

Lines for Leaders - Rocket Surgeon

It was his first real leadership position, and Adam Steltzner was struggling to get his team to work together.  In his book, The Right Kind of Crazy,* he describes his efforts to lead the team that engineered the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) of the Curiosity Rover on to the surface of Mars.  The job was highly technical, under great time pressure, and in the public eye; the whole world would immediately know of his team’s success or failure.

His team of ten was a disparate one.  Some were fresh out of college, while others were grizzled veterans in their 50s.  Some were brash and resembled football linemen; others were almost elfin.  One spoke so quietly it was hard to hear her, another had a sarcastic sense of humor, and a third Steltzner characterized as having a ‘fiery temperament.’   While all of them were exceedingly capable, they were also very different people. 

Insecure in this first leadership position, his approach was pushy, assertive, and almost invasive.  He liked the intellectual ‘clash of ideas’ and led with a confrontational style.  This didn’t work well for some of his teammates.  Several of them struggled to find their place.

In the moment, he wrote them off as them being weak, or unable to take the pressure.  Now, looking back, he saw it was something else.  He wrote:

     “A leader has to strike the cultural tone of the team, but you can’t make everything a monotone.  You have to invite the coexistence of differing styles and do your best to make the culture open to different ways of getting the job done.  I still struggle with this a little today, but back then I knew only one tune, and I played it very loudly.”

The Curiosity rover landed successfully on Mars, but his team’s trip to get it there was a rocky one.  Some of that difficulty, Steltzner came to see, was his own fault. 

Our teammates have tunes worth hearing; good leaders don’t focus on their own song, but on finding the best blend of all the players’ tunes.

Lead On!

* Affiliate Link

Who else would enjoy this post?
About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

Related Posts
Welcome to the Team!
It's great to have you join us!
Ken Downer - Founder of RapidStart Leadership
Please check your email
to confirm (and get a gift)
Get the leadership tools to help
2x Month * Direct Email * No Spam

They are ready to follow...

...are you ready to lead?

lead your virtual team

Subscribe now