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!

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