Ask for Permission, or for Forgiveness?

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
–Grace Hopper






My team is continuing to work hard on our strategy development.  As I mentioned in a previous blog entry (Peeling the Infinite Onion), we’re working multiple activities concurrently that will lead to interdependent results, all of which leads to a strategy that must meet the approval of a key executive at NASA Headquarters.  One of my subteams is tackling a particular challenging yet important element of our strategy.  For a few weeks we’ve been consulting with external support organizations and individual experts, and discovering new information and perspectives.  Yet throughout this process, we encountered repeatedly that no matter what approach we propose, we must meet the approval of the key executive.

I asked my external support organization, “What is required to get his approval?”  I got responses along the lines that a fully explained rationale and justification is expected.  “OK, tell me more…”  I never got a satisfactory answer: in several cases, my support people resorted to “guessing’ what the key executive would like and not like.  Earlier this week, I felt that I had exhausted the information and experience of my support organization, putting me in a difficult position: what do I do next?

I decided to go straight to the source and ask the executive directly.

I chose to operate at the highest level of empowerment: Act, then Advise.  My organization’s leadership has entrusted me with leading this team in its work, and therefore has given me great latitude to find the best path.  Therefore I chose to act by asking my questions directly of the key executive, followed by a courtesy note to my organization’s leadership that I had done so.  Sometimes I’ve heard this level of empowerment referred to as, “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

I also considered the option to act at a slightly lower level of empowerment: Recommend, then Act.  This level is usually appropriate for unusual actions, either inherent in the nature of the action itself or due to an unusual interface, such as short-circuiting normal organizational chains of command (except when warranted for safety, for example).  In my case, the key executive will be to whom I will be presenting my team’s strategy in a few months.  From an organizational hierarchical standpoint, the key executive is about 2 levels above me.  Former NASA Associate Administrator Scott Pace reinforced in me the concept that successful leadership in an individual requires that person to be comfortable interacting with leadership 2 levels above.  For all of these reasons, I decided to operate at the higher level of empowerment and not to “ask for permission.”  I believe that if I would have asked my external support organization for advice, they would have recommended that I work my request through their chain of command.  I chose not to seek their advice.  I felt I had the authority and pressing immediacy of need to act now.

The next two levels are not empowering: they are imprisoning, and unfortunately I see them too often in individuals and organizations around me: Ask What To Do.  I don’t know if this is due to inadequate training, organizational cultures, or poor leadership, yet I believe that individuals and organizations who operate primarily at this level, or leaders who insist that their people operate at this level, are doomed to be failing organizations.

Finally, the bottom level: Do Nothing Until Told.  This is clearly a route to failure.

When I operated at the highest level in this particular case, the response I got from the key executive was prompt and extremely helpful – even surpassing my expectations.  I doubt I would have achieved similar satisfaction if I would have chosen to operate at one of the lower levels.


Ask for Permission, or for Forgiveness?

Reflections on Gettysburg

“After this urgent protest against entering into battle at Gettysburg according to instructions – which protest is the first and only one I ever made during my entire military career – I ordered my line to advance and make the assault.”
–General John B. Hood



Two years ago marked a pivotal experience for me. It was one that I did not anticipate at the time, nor fully appreciate the impact it would have upon me until later.  The event was a tour of Gettysburg.

I heard that a tour of Gettysburg was on the agenda while I was in NASA’s leadership development program.  So, what did I know about Gettysburg prior to my visit?  Well, I knew going in that Gettysburg was the site of the battle that turned the tide for the Union versus the Confederacy, and was also the site of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Oh, and that Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania.  In all honesty and embarrassment, that was about all I knew.

I soon learned a lot more than that, more than I could have imagined that affected me in fundamental and profound ways.

From an analytic view, I learned several leadership lessons from Gettysburg based upon my reading beforehand, organized into separate lessons as told mostly from the Confederacy point of view….

1) Leaders must recognize personal differences with subordinates, superiors, and peers.  Leaders must encourage all to work together to accomplish the mission and achieve tangible results.  Each side experienced this in the initial contacts.  The Confederacy gained the upper hand, yet John Buford’s cavalry made a stand that made a difference in the subsequent days.

2) Lee’s plan on Day 2 was perfect based upon the intel and assumed capabilities of his army and leaders.  He and his leadership team also showed the ability to react and adapt to a changing condition, at least initially.  However, the flaw in the plan was that there was no margin for error. In the end, his subordinates failed to ensure delivery on every key tactical element, which was required of Lee’s plan.  The troops failed to execute the final stages of the en echelon maneuver, and the leadership failed to adjust its leadership styles given the readiness level of its next line leadership.

3) Lee’s plan on Day 3 was one of desperation and did not consider alternatives, such as to withdraw to draw out the Army of the Potomac or to focus the attack from the east, for example.  Additionally, command of a key area was placed in the hands of an inexperienced person who made incorrect assumptions – that he would know if he was successful based upon the enemy’s response, which turned out to be a false indicator.

Overall, for the Confederacy there was no clear succession plan.  Capable lower level leaders demonstrated in extreme situations that they reached “The Peter Principle” in higher-level positions, at a time too late for the leadership to take corrective action.

As I reflected on these analytic lessons in leadership before my visit, it begged the question in my mind what would have happened if Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would not have died from his wounds and subsequent pneumonia from Chancellorsville a few weeks before.  Would that have made the difference in the outcome at Gettysburg?

As I reflected on that point while actually walking the fields of Gettysburg, I wondered about that point as well as the decisions and failings of leadership that led to the ultimate of consequences those three days.  My analytic thoughts turned to more emotional ones as I walked the fields in chronological order of the three days of battle.  I sensed the ebb and flow of the first day as the Confederacy made contact with Buford’s cavalry on the rolling hills to the west of town, when the leadership on both sides had no real sense of the battle yet to come.  I felt the split-second decisions of leadership as I stood on Little Round Top where Joshua Chamberlain gave the order to fix bayonets and charge.  I wondered about the certainties and uncertainties of leadership decisions as I stood where Lew Armistead died as one of the few in Pickett’s charge to make it beyond the Union lines.  I sought parallels of the consequences of the decisions of leadership at Gettysburg with the work of my organization at NASA – after all, we deal with decisions that can kill people – and felt deeply the loss of the crews of Challenger and Columbia.  When the day at Gettysburg drew to a close, I found that words failed me.  In some sense, they still do.

After the experience at Gettysburg, I walked the sites at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and felt a similar experience.  I reflected on the zenith of the Confederacy at Fredericksburg where Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet despite terrible odds defeated a much larger and better equipped Union army in what was essentially a rout.  Chancellorsville was a repeat in many respects of Fredericksburg, except that it cost the Confederacy dearly with the loss of Jackson.  All of these events speak volumes to me about the capability of teams when led by a leadership team that instills a sense of possibility versus inevitability, one in which the troops believe in its leadership on one side versus that on another where loss and defeat is the expectation.

What did I learn from Gettysburg?  That incredible accomplishments are possible with the belief they are possible, and that leadership is not a solitary endeavor.  We need people around us to believe, and we have to believe in ourselves.

On a final note, today is April 21.  For non-Texans, this date may have no significance.  For Texans, it is San Jacinto Day.  It is the day where the Texian Army, led by General Sam Houston, defeated a much larger and better equipped Mexican Army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, marking the decisive battle and key victory of the fight for Texas independence.  In some sense, today is another lesson in leadership, about the power of belief in the possible and having faith in leadership and each other.

Reflections on Gettysburg

Peeling the Infinite Onion

“Realize that now, in this moment of time, you are creating. You are creating your next moment. That is what’s real.”
–Sara Paddison





As I mentioned in my previous blog entry (The Next Step), the road ahead for my team will be tougher than that we’ve encountered to date.  Our strategy must pass the scrutiny of a key executive at NASA Headquarters and adhere to a recent memorandum issued by the Obama Administration.  With that, we know our destination, but have no roadmap on how to get there.

At times, it sure seems like we’re peeling the infinite onion.

My team’s lifeblood is knowledge and information.  Last week, I felt that I had gathered as much of both that was available, and was ready to commit the team to a particular course of action.  A fortuitous meeting with a very experienced mentor led me to reassess that position and my own thoughts on the matter.  I even tweeted about it:

Meeting over. Turned out to be ‘eye opening’ in that my team and I have a tremendous amount of work to do to solve our biggest challenge.”

I’m constantly examining my position relative to various courses of action.  I’m compelled by a sense of “what’s right” versus wrong.  Yet time and time again, situations remind me that our strategic planning is not black and white.  It’s not right or wrong.  It will be the best plan to suit the needs of my organization and of NASA and will be fiscally responsible with the America taxpayer dollar.  The best plan will be revealed as part of the unfolding of the universe, and as such will take time and cannot be rushed.

When I reflect upon the above, I find a sense of peace and reassurance that we’re on the right path.  Sure, at times it may seem like we’re peeling the infinite onion, yet in actuality we’re not.  With each passing moment, another facet in the plan is revealed.  Soon we will have enough information to build a strategy rooted in completeness, thoroughness, and self-consistency, and when we reach that point, we will know it.

Peeling the Infinite Onion

The Next Step

“Change starts when someone sees the next step.”
–William Drayton






Last week my team and I got the go-ahead from NASA Headquarters to proceed with the next step in our strategic plan.  We’ve been together for three months and this approval represents the first key milestone on our journey.  It’s our first victory.  In some respects, however, the work is just beginning; the road ahead is much tougher.  Previously, everyone on the team was working together on the same action, contributing unique perspectives and strengths yet focused together on a common effort.  The next step is different.

Instead of being focused on a common action, the step ahead requires us to divide our efforts along lines of specialization and focus on a series of interdependent results.  For me as the leader, I can see a definite challenge for me.  I’ve always heard one trait of the ideal leader: set the direction then get out of the way.  I can see some sanity to that – I’d probably go crazy if I worried over details best left to the team members working them.  It’s hard to let go, though.

I encountered this situation a few days ago as we were laying plans for an upcoming event.  We started the discussion as a group, yet something kept nagging me in the back of my head.  As the conversation continued, I realized that there was no need to tie up the entire group on matters that could have been handled by part of the team – especially given that two of my team members need to focus on a different matter.  We agreed to actions and ended our tagup.

In formulating a plan to move forward, my energies need to be focused in two areas: keeping the team moving forward to our goal, and to continue interacting with the elements external to the team for communication and coalition building.  I can assign leads within my team to focus on the day-to-day details of the various simultaneous activities we have underway. I can use tagups with the team to share information and solve problems that require the entire team.  I can use special tagups with just the leads for more focused and frank conversations.

“Set the direction then get out of the way.” Let’s try that!

The Next Step

The Journey: Why Am I Blogging About Leadership and NASA?

“The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”
–Don Williams, Jr

Why am I on Twitter (@rikerjoe) and blogging about leadership and NASA?  To set the stage, I’d like to share a bit about my journey so far.

As a child growing up in Houston, I was always interested in space. My imagination was further sparked by my grandfather’s first-hand accounts of working for Boeing on the Apollo Program in the 1960s, and I followed with a passion NASA’s great missions of discovery in our solar system during the 1970s.  I turned my passion for space into an academic pursuit by obtaining bachelor and masters degrees in physics.  Upon completing graduate school, I returned to Houston and saw a NASA ad in the Houston Chronicle.  The combination of my lifetime interest in space and opportunity led me to a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home of Mission Control and the astronauts.

During the first part of my career, I was blessed to work in mission operations for the shuttle, then the International Space Station.  I experienced first-hand, as a flight controller working in Mission Control, shuttle missions that explored low earth orbit following the Challenger accident.  I also participated in the transition to a new mission of discovery rooted in international cooperation with the shuttle flights to the Russian space station Mir, and eventually the start of the International Space Station.  It was an exciting and challenging time of overcoming technical, political, budgetary, and language barriers.  My abilities to grasp big-picture thinking and produce compelling results in such a challenging environment were recognized by my leadership, and I eventually joined the ranks of leadership in mission operations.  I led two different groups of flight controllers through the first wave of assembly missions for the International Space Station.

Then, the Columbia accident happened.

As a young leader, I asked myself the question, “What did I do – or not do – that contributed to the accident?”  I consumed the Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, dissected it into its essentials, and attempted to reassemble it into my own leadership view.  From this I saw indications of a rather disturbing picture: several of the leaders involved in the flawed decision-making during the ill-fated Columbia mission spent time as leaders within my organization.  In my opinion, my home organization is very much in the mode of leadership development through emulation, rooted in a military-like hierarchal approach to operations that have remained essentially unchanged since the Apollo era. Could that have somehow contributed to the Columbia accident? Clearly, I had more questions than answers, and I wasn’t going to find those answers by staying put.  I was also growing dissatisfied with my entry-level leadership role, and I didn’t know why either.  Were these connected, or symptoms of different problems?  Finally, I saw a tremendous threat to the future of mission operations in the form of reduced budgets.  Modern-day budgetary constraints make the mission operations approaches established nearly 50 years ago unsustainable in the long run, yet I saw no action by my leadership to prepare for the threat I knew instinctively would come.  Again I knew I needed to take action.

I took a bold step and applied for NASA’s leadership development program.  I was motivated by potential exposure to new leadership approaches and ways of thinking that embrace change in a proactive manner, and vowed to bring that back home.  The program took me out of my “comfort zone” by leading me to NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC for a ten-month assignment and a year of intensive leadership training experiences at sites scattered across the country.  During my year I was able to learn more about the framework of leadership, and I was exposed to leadership in different environments in other areas of NASA and outside of NASA.  I worked for key leaders and had access to far reaching decision-making at the highest levels at NASA.  I walked the halls behind the scenes at Capitol Hill where I was able to “peek behind the curtain” on how work gets done – or not done – in Congress.  I conversed with military leaders at Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs to reaffirm for myself the strength of discipline contained in the military roots of my own organization.  I engaged with leaders in Silicon Valley, who are leading a tremendous wave of change sweeping the globe.  I was moved by the compelling stories told by leaders of various non-profit efforts, who accomplish more with pure vision and determination than many of the rest of us.  And I read about and walked the battlefields of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, to reflect upon the tactical and strategic decisions of leadership that led to the ultimate consequences nearly 150 years ago.  Wow, what a unique experience!  I’m getting chills right now as I write this.

When I returned home following graduation from the leadership development program, it was with a renewed and larger sense of purpose.  I have a vision of the future of mission operations that the leadership openly embraces and supports.  During my first assignment, I co-led a team charged with redefining the work for the infrastructure of NASA’s Mission Operations in Houston. My driving target is to reduce the operations cost of the International Space Station by 30 percent, and to operate the next generation of space vehicles for 50 percent of the shuttle’s current operations cost.  For this effort, we exceeded our expectations, yielding a savings of approximately $300 million to the American taxpayer while expanding the use of technological innovations and synergies.  This enables us to continue to improve and excel in human space operations for a greatly reduced cost.

My organization’s leadership team took note of our successes and my technical and leadership roles in it, and asked me to lead the next effort of strategic planning.  That is what I’m doing now.  The time for learning hasn’t ended; it co-exists with taking action and producing compelling results every day.  My own near-term challenge as a leader is to share more about “what drives me” as a leader.  In part, I am driven by continuous learning and discovery which, as Richard Feynman said, is not complete until it is shared with someone else.  I am strongly motivated by the uniqueness that each of us have, and I consider it no accident that each of us is here at this moment in time.  It is for a reason – a necessity – that we’re here to help the universe unfold in its full glory together.  It is for these reasons why I’ve turned my journaling, which was a private affair, into blogging about my experiences in leadership at NASA.  I’m out there for all of you to see, both for you to benefit from my successes and failures as well as for me to learn and grow with you.  It is also as much of a willingness for me to ask for your help rather than to rely solely upon my own resources.  It’s about authentic presence.

I invite you to continue with me on this journey.

The Journey: Why Am I Blogging About Leadership and NASA?

The Importance of Allies

al•ly – noun |ˈalī| |ˈøli| |ˈalʌɪ| (pl. -lies)
a person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity
–New Oxford American Dictionary




My team and I are pressing ahead with our strategic work.  We have another important product to release in a few days and are in the midsts of external reviews on it while we work in parallel on follow-on products.  Earlier this week I had a positive experience that reinforced the importance of having a strong coalition with allies.

I got a phone call from the team leader of an organization external to my team that plays an important part in establishing the framework of my team’s strategic development work.  Each month she and her bosses meet with the leader of my organization.  During the most recent of those meetings, the leader of my organization shared some expectations with them that he had on my team’s immediate product.  Those expectations were key details that my team and I had not factored into our work, and she realized it.  Immediately after the meeting she called me and relayed the details.

Now, my first reaction was one of dismay: why hadn’t I already reviewed this particular aspect in detail with my my own organization?  Then I began to question my own leadership in this matter, from the perspective that it’s my responsibility to properly engage with my organization’s leadership.  Clearly, in that moment I was being hard on myself – I set very high expectation on myself as a leader and felt I came up short on this particular matter.

In the next moment, that feeling was gone, replaced by a deeper, more positive realization: I had an ally I could depend upon.

This was not by accident.  I’ve been cultivating a working relationship with the team lead over a number of months.  I realized that she and her team are important to the success of my team.  That investment paid off in spades when she heard expectations from my organization’s leader that were not incorporated in my team’s product and called me right away.  She didn’t have to do that; she could have sat on the information and used it some other way to further herself or her team. Yet she chose to call me and share.

I realize that I can’t go it alone as a leader. My previous post on The Leadership Web is my starting point for identifying attributes of a personal leadership support network.  Here, this also shows the importance to a leader of building a different kind of support network – one consisting of a coalition of allies.  When I reflected on how my ally came to my aid, my dismay turned to one of satisfaction.  My team took the expectations she relayed to me and improved our product in a very important way.  Moreover, I learned that as a leader I can make an investment in and count on allies to help me when needed, and even unexpectedly, in a very positive way.

The Importance of Allies