The Leadership Web

“We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone … and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.”
–Sandra Day O’Connor



Last week I encountered an event that has led me on a journey to define and build a “leadership web” of trusted advisors.  What’s that? I’ll get to that in a minute.  First, here is the story that has committed me to this path of discovery, a path that is still in work, and one in which I invite you to contribute your ideas and suggestions.

As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, I am leading a team that is investigating future strategies for NASA’s mission operations.  Last Tuesday was our first major event – our first briefing via videoteleconference with executives at NASA Headquarters.  One of the key executives was not going to be present but reviewed our materials a few days in advance.  As I was driving to the office the morning of the briefing, I received a phone call from one of his staff members who informed me that he had a list of questions for me to review in advance of the briefing, commenting that “they are significant.”  “Uh oh,” I thought.  That comment quickly turned to a more descriptive and colorful statement when I arrived at the office and saw the actual list of questions.  My heart sank as I read question after question that I was not prepared to answer and that also indicated a theme of deep concern with our proposed approach.  Frankly, I didn’t know what I was going to do!

What I really could have used at that moment is a good dose of advice.  Enter the “leadership web.”  The leadership web is a support network of trusted advisors.  The support can take on many forms but ultimately revolves around the following areas: help with data and information, and help with people.

Here is my thinking so far about potential members of my leadership web:

  • A Business Coach, who asks the questions, “What have you tried? How has this worked? What else can you try?” as a means to identify barriers and to design strategies and actions to overcome them.
  • A Training Advisor, who offers that “research and experience have shown this to be the best way”
  • A Mentor, who offers “this is how I did it”, based on his/her experience and knowledge.
  • A Technical Advisor (or two), who gives expert advice on technical topics and offers “do it this way” based on his/her technical expertise.
  • A Political Advisor, who offers insights on topics non-technical in nature that can have as much of an influence as any technical topic; suggests that “you ought to take this into consideration.”

That is my list so far, and I feel it to be incomplete.  What have I missed?

Many thanks to Susan Mazza (@SusanMazza on Twitter), who suggested I take the approach above and ask for your help in building the leadership web.  Thanks, Susan!

[Update Tuesday, March 31, 2009.  I’m humbled and honored by the feedback I’ve received so far by email and Twitter.  One contributor pointed out that this entry would have created a good discussion, if we all could have read each other’s comments.  I agree!  Therefore, I welcome any ideas or suggestions on collaboration tools to allow us to share and build upon each other’s ideas.]

The Leadership Web

The Flyaround: A Retrospective

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude;
be kind, but not weak;
be bold, but not bully;
be thoughtful, but not lazy;
be humble, but not timid;
be proud, but not arrogant;
have humor, but without folly.”
–Jim Rohn

It’s an interesting story as to why the shuttle performs a flyaround of the International Space Station and who flies the shuttle during the event.  Here’s the story, which goes back to the mid-1990’s.

I was a young(er) engineer working my first big assignment – as the lead Rendezvous Guidance and Procedures Officer (Mission Control call sign “Rendezvous”) for the flight of Discovery during shuttle mission STS-63, the first shuttle mission to visit the Russian Space Station Mir.  My task as Rendezvous was to design the procedures for piloting the shuttle during rendezvous, docking, and departure, then monitor the crew as they performed these tasks from Mission Control.

Somewhere in the NASA and Russian Space Agency hierarchy, someone got the idea of having the shuttle perform a flyaround of Mir as part of the rendezvous, approach, and departure operations on STS-63.  It gained traction as a photography opportunity as well as somewhat of a piloting stunt (although no one claims the latter).  In any case, a team of shuttle mission designers came up with the basic technique, and it was up to me to design the procedures and help the training team work with the crew so that they could execute it.

The challenge of the flyaround is that for photography purposes, we wanted the flyaround to be at a constant range. The photography experts determined a range that would be acceptable based on the lenses they provided, and from there they asked that the range be held constant.  This is a challenge in low earth orbit, since due to orbital mechanics effects, objects up high travel slower than those lower, which tends to elongate a circular path into a football shape.  The design team came up with a clever trick to execute the flyaround at twice orbital rate.  Since it takes the shuttle about 90 minutes to complete one orbit of the earth, the flyaround was to be execute in 45 minutes per lap. Thus, it gained the name “Twice Orbit Rate Flyaround”, or TORF in the NASA love for acronyms.

To execute the flyaround, the shuttle onboard computers are commanded to pitch the shuttle up automatically.  The crew’s job is to translate the shuttle forward to keep the center target in view of the overhead windows.  Through the action of the computers pitching the shuttle up and the crew manually translating the shuttle forward, a flyaround of the center would be executed.  They key feature of the TORF was that no jets on the shuttle had to be fired towards Mir to round the football into a circular shape, in principle.  It was harder to do than it appeared and on several instances in the simulator, the crew had to fire jets at Mir in order to hold to the constant range circular shape of the flyaround.  During one training session, Astronaut Mike Foale turned to me, and in either a flash of insight or brilliance (or both in his case) said to me, “We ought not to make any corrections as we are crossing the plus V-bar and minus V-bar.”  The V-bar is an imaginary line extending from the center point (in this case, Mir) and pointing in the orbital direction (or opposite, for the minus side).  Hmm, I didn’t know if he was right or not, so after the training session I decided to prove it to myself through some analysis of orbital mechanics.  The result you can find here, which is heavy on the mathematics.  Turns out what Mike said was dead on.  If the crew made no inputs while crossing the plus or minus V-bar and only made inputs near the top and bottom on the flyaround, it would be successful.

After that realization, the crew incorporated the changes and were able to fly the flyaround repeatedly in the simulator without firing jets towards Mir.  They grew so comfortable with it that the commander, Jim Wetherbee, allowed his rookie pilot, Eileen Collins, to fly the flyaround during the mission itself.  Jim is a humble guy who never sought the limelight for himself, and it would take such a person to hand over the stick to his pilot.  During the actual mission, Eileen flew the flyaround flawlessly.  Jim went on to command several other shuttle missions to Mir and ISS before retiring from the astronaut corps.  Later, Eileen became the first female to command a shuttle mission, and commanded several before retiring.  Mike Foale went on to do extended tours onboard Mir and ISS, and I still see him in the hallways (so to speak) on occasion. Each time I see him, I am reminded of that conversation we had, one that has had such a lasting impact on human spaceflight.

As for the flyaround, it was incorporated into every subsequent mission to Mir and to the ISS, and the commander hands over the stick to his/her pilot to fly it to this day.

The Flyaround: A Retrospective

Orbital Rendezvous 101

“To speed up, you slow down. Makes perfect sense!”






Your mission: chase down the International Space Station in less than two days, even though it has nearly a 20,000 mi lead on you and is traveling at over 17,000 mph.  Daunting?  Sure seems like it!  Yet armed with some insights into orbital rendezvous, what may seem impossible becomes not only possible, but quite doable.

The first fundamental of orbital rendezvous is the following law: to go fast, stay low. Want a proof in point? Compare the orbital speed of the ISS with that of the moon.  The ISS is traveling at about 17,500 mph.  How about the moon?  Well, the moon is 238,000 mi away and requires one month to complete an orbit. Therefore, some simple math says that the moon is traveling at 2,200 mph – a lot slower in comparison.  Therefore, we’ll use that to our advantage by launching the shuttle into a lower orbit than the ISS and stay there for a period of time to allow the shuttle to “catch up” to the ISS.

In the case of space shuttle Discovery for the STS-119 mission, it was launched into an initial orbit about 125 miles high on one side of its orbit and 85 miles on the other.  If needed, Discovery could remain in that orbit to provide the fastest possible catch-up rate.  In our case, the fastest rate is not needed.  The Flight Dynamics Officer in Mission Control performs a calculation to determine the best catch-up rate, which in this particular case called for shaping the orbit into approximately a 145-by-125 mile orbit on Flight Day 1.  The shuttle remains in that orbit through Flight Day 2 and into the morning of Flight Day 3.

Then the fun begins.  It is “day of rendezvous,” a term of art that means the sequence of maneuvers nearly identical on all shuttle rendezvous missions designed to bring the shuttle to its rendezvous target, in our case the International Space Station.

The first maneuver of Flight Day 3 raises one side of the orbit to the same height as ISS and to arrive at a point 40 miles behind it. The next maneuver raises the other side to the point just below ISS such that the shuttle arrives at a point 8 miles behind the station 90 minutes later.  At this point, the shuttle executes a burn that will have it arrive directly underneath the ISS 90 minutes later.  There is a series of midcourse corrections burns that are performed following this last burn to refine the orbit based on onboard navigation data.  The shuttle arrives just below ISS, performs a belly-flip to allow photography of its underside by the ISS crew, then approaches and docks, all while traveling at – you guessed it – 17,500 mph.

And that is how you accomplish an orbital rendezvous!

Orbital Rendezvous 101

Stop the Splitting and Delegate

“Give away everything you can.”
–John Maxwell






This week I’ve been divided into two.  No, I’m not undergoing mitosis.  (How’s that for high school biology!)  My team has worked very hard to produce our first key product in our strategic development work, and they are now focusing on get-ahead tasks while I prepare to present the aforementioned product to key NASA leaders.  The preparation part that is occupying half my attention requires dry-runs before various reviewers.  I’ve been practicing and giving presentations and dealing with the inevitable last-minute changes from the review process.  The get-ahead part occupies the other half of my attention.  In it I am seeking and enlisting the aid of key resources who have information relevant for our next stage.  This work will keep my team busy while I’m rehearsing the presentation and allow us to make some early progress on the next stage.

I reflected on how I was doing as a leader this week.  I had a sense that I may not have been delegating enough to my team, especially with regard to the get-ahead tasks.  So, the other day I asked one of my team members, who is quickly becoming my right-hand person, for some feedback.  I asked her to keep an eye on me, and if she notices that I am not delegating something, she is to bring it to my immediate attention.  She agreed, and although she didn’t say it, the look and half-smile that she gave me was all the affirmation I needed.

Fast-forward to today. Towards the end of an extremely busy workday, I took a moment to catch up on news and Twitter.  During my review I noted a new blog post by John Maxwell entitled – of all things – “You’re doing too much on your own.” Wow, that hit home, and timely!  In his write-up it is the following reminder: “give away everything you can.”  I considered the get-ahead tasks.  One or more of the gang can do the work at least 80% as well as I can – likely even better than that, so I could give away responsibility of the get-ahead tasks to my team and focus on preparing for the presentation.

As soon as I realized that, I felt the splitting stop. Now, I can focus on the presentation and let the team continue to forge ahead.  Plus, I now can enjoy the entire weekend!

Stop the Splitting and Delegate

Crossroad: A Leadership Lesson Learned

“A leader is not an administrator who loves to run others, but someone who carries water for his people so that they can get on with their jobs”
–Robert Townsend



In my last blog post (A Weakness Revealed) I ended with a note that I would seek some outside help for methods to validate our approach and would come up with a framework for one of my team members who is slowly disengaging from my team’s task.  Armed with an approach I charged forward and almost caused a disaster as a leader.  Here is what happened.

I met with an outside official and asked for help on the validation effort.  She came armed with a bunch of data which, after she and I looked through and discussed it, led to two ideas that I felt would offer the validation path for us.  One of the ideas appeared to me to be directly related to my disengaging team member’s concern.  I melded the two ideas into a proposal and offered it to the team yesterday afternoon, saying that this approach provides the way for us to validate our data and lead us towards a recommendation.  One of my other team members looked at it and immediately called BS on one of the two ideas – the one that concerned my disengaging team member the most.  I attempted to defend the idea under attack and argued that it was supported by the regulations and materials given to me that morning.

I was at a leadership crossroad.  Was it my role to defend my freshly-concocted proposal, or was it to encourage alternative ideas?  When I realized the choices before me, I stopped.

My team agreed that the the one idea I offered was not a proper discriminator given the other information we had at hand, especially from our recent field trip to the nuclear power plant.  After further conversation, I apologized to the team and said that I had embraced eagerly the one idea as a way of “throwing the disengaging team member a bone” and that I would hand over the data to the team, allow them to review the data in detail, and come forward with their own ideas.  Another of my team members approach me offline and said that he and another team member would work on the data, would show it to individual team members to get early feedback, then bring it to the whole team.  That demonstrated excellent leadership in my mind, and I thank him and told him so.

What did I learn here? Clearly, it is not my role as leader to come up with all the right choices.  My role is in this case is to expand possibilities and empower the team to make the best decisions possible.  This situation served as a good reminder to me, and I won’t forget it.

Crossroad: A Leadership Lesson Learned

A Weakness Revealed

“The weakness of the many make the leader possible.”
–Elbert Hubbard






Remember the list in my blog post concerning Team Strengths? One of the zeroes popped out in full force today.

How did this happen?

Earlier today, my team and I met to review our experiences at the nuclear power plant yesterday. Everyone enjoyed the trip and found the experience and information we obtained as extremely beneficial for our work.  I started our tagup today by saying, “I’d like for each of us to talk about what he or she observed yesterday during our tour and discussion.  We’ll capture the observations here” – I pointed to a Word document projected on the screen – “and we will review and refine the entries once we get all of them on the page.  Each of us may have observed something a little different due to our own internal filters, so let’s get the observations on the page first, then start combining and refining.”  We started, and it was going well at first.

One of my team members was sensing that the observations captured up to a particular point could lead to a position that is contrary to one he has been advocating for a few weeks.  He said something along the lines of “no matter what you observed, I cannot support a position that…” and he elaborated on details.  One of my other team members took the bait and argued the opposite position.  Soon, the review collapsed into a debate of opposing positions, and I sat there, momentarily shocked.

I recovered and shared my observation of what happened: “Gang, our conversation has diverted into arguing positions.  There will be a time for us to create our team’s position – not opposing positions – and that time is not now.  We don’t have enough data on the table yet to even build a position.  Let’s return our focus to capturing, then coalescing, our observations from yesterday.”

The first team member then said that he is not adding value to our current conversation, nor to our team since he was a minority voice.  Another of my team members said that he was incorrect, that he did make everyone think about what we are saying.  I added that, “It’s not about a majority versus minority.  It’s about US, and you are a part of US.  In your objections are the kernels of ideas that we need to surface for all of us to be able to address – if we don’t we may be missing something crucial.”

Then it hit me.  I glanced at the whiteboard where I had the chart of Team Strengths and the inventory of the top 3 strengths of my team members.  There, in glaring letters, was this entry in the chart:

“Validators (0) – those who keep testing the robustness of new knowledge”

No one on my team identified being a Validator as a personal strength; thus, my team lacked this strength in its inventory.  As a team, our conversation attempted to validate each of our observations, yet we were doing it wrong.  We were validating against our individual pre-formed positions that could be defended on the basis of selected observations!

When I realized this, I ended the tagup and said we would reconvene on this topic later.  In an offline discussion shortly after the tagup, I shared my observation concerning the lack of a Validator strength with one of my team members and said, “I don’t know how to approach building a framework for validating our observations that will get us around the problem of opposing positions.  In the end, we need a team position, not a majority versus minority slug-it-out position.  That is unacceptable to me.  Perhaps where we can start is to identify the features we like about some of the options we are considering and go from there.”  In this one thread of conversation, the MBTI “E” in me came out – I had to think aloud, and from that drew confidence and energy that we could find a solution to this team weakness.  The team member with whom I was speaking offered to pull together a list of features based upon the observations we captured.

I still face a challenge of lacking the validation strength in my team.  I asked for outside help on validating our new knowledge, and will get some feedback on that tomorrow.  I also still face the challenge of a team member who appears to me to have a closed mind and is not open to listening to alternative points of view.  He is a strong “F” and talks a lot from that position: “I’m uncomfortable with…” “I feel that…” which is OK – I’m an “F” as well (just not as strong as he is).  I need to find a common ground from which to reach him in a feeling way to extract the nuggets of gold I believe are there.  I’m going to try the features list and see what happens.

It can’t hurt to try, right?

A Weakness Revealed

Expanding Possibilities Through Questions

To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.
–Sam Keen

Tomorrow the team will be touring a nearby nuclear power plant.  What does that have to do with NASA?  Nuclear powered rockets?  No, not this trip… it’s about asking questions.

Ah, benchmarking.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, in that benchmarking is an important means to share best practices and to measure how one is performing relative to others.  No, in that a typical benchmarking effort typically revolves around one type of question: the fact-finding question.

This trip is about more than that.  I believe that to achieve a complete dialogue, one must entertain other types of questions that go beyond fact-finding.  One can expand possibilities by entertaining different ways to ask questions that may overcome barriers thrown up when facing direct who/what/when/where/how questions.  Here are some suggested alternative types of questions:

The feeling-finding question: Based on “How do you feel about…”, this question may open new channels with people who may not be comfortable talking about the facts.

The flyswatter question: I stole this title from the flyswatter principle from calculus of attacking a problem from both sides. This question bounds the extrema of possible answers through the use of, “What do you like the most/least about…” or “What is the best/worst about…”.  From there, one can explore further lines of questioning, such as the next type.

The “Tell me more” question: As the name states, this question is some form of, “Tell me more” “Please elaborate” and other open-ended variations.

Finally, there is the “King for a Day” question: This question attempts to remove all obstacles that may be hindering the free exchange of information and asks questions such as “If you were king for a day,…” or “If time and money were no obstacles,…” or “If you knew you could not fail,…”

In building our list of questions for our tour tomorrow, we checked them against this list.  We do have a fair number of fact-finding questions.   That is to be expected.  However, we do have a good set of complimentary questions spread across the other four types listed above.  I’m confident that armed with such a rich list of questions, we will be successful in our benchmarking visit.

Expanding Possibilities Through Questions