Passion and Discipline


“Passion starts the journey and discipline guides around the curves.”
–Kate Nasser

You remember the story of the trapped Chilean miners from last year?

Earlier this summer i saw a video clip of an interview conducted by Michael Useem, Director for the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania (and author of a number of books such as Leading Up, which I happen to have on my bookshelf), with Laurence Golborne, a Chilean civil engineer, entrepreneur, and Chile’s Mining Minister.  What I found fascinating about the interview is the simplicity with which Golborne spoke about leading a team of specialists to conduct the rescue.  In particular, I noted several key attributes he mentioned concerning leadership:

  • Sell the team on a dream: the idea that we can describe the outcome we are seeking – successful rescue of the miners – as what we are striving for.
  • Never give up: although the challenges for conducting a rescue may appear insurmountable, positive optimism will win the day.
  • Be present and seen as committed: being on site as opposed to behind a desk in Santiago brought forth a level of infectious commitment from all those involved in the rescue.
  • Be surrounded by competent, confident people: having the previous three naturally draws competent, confident people like a magnet; a leader is only as good as the weakest link on the team.

When I reflected on these key attributes, I see a pattern of passion and discipline.  Moreover, these two words have cropped up numerous times in recent weeks.  Is there something going on here?

Kate Nasser thinks so.  In a recent blog post she wrote that it takes two traits to be successful – passion and discipline – as a duo.  Success does not come with one or the other.  It must be both.

I’ve reflected on passion and discipline as I look ahead to our future in human spaceflight (you knew this was coming, right?).  On Monday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden remarked during a visit here in Houston that the new Space Launch System will succeed because we will have a leaner, more disciplined NASA that will overcome the technical and budgetary challenges before us.  Much as in the Chilean mining rescue, some of these challenges are rather daunting.  With a growing federal deficit and increased pressure from some in Congress to cut spending, the budgetary challenges will be tremendous.  As Charlie pointed out, “we have to be affordable and we have to change the way we do business.”  All of this speaks towards discipline – technical and budgetary.

Where is the passion?

Look, if there is one characteristic in common with people when talking about space, it’s passion.  Just last week I gave a tour of the NASA facilities in Houston to a friend, and during the day I could see the passion in her eyes as the tour served as a catalyst for her own dreams of pursuing advanced degrees in astrophysics.  What is it the NASA Tweetup participants have in common, for choosing to come together?  Passion.

If the passion for the next step in human spaceflight is rooted in merely building giant rockets, then we are what some of our critics accuse us of being: yet another Government agency whose existence serves the special interests in certain Congressional districts. I don’t know about you, but my passion is not in building giant rockets, with all due respects to some of my esteemed NASA colleagues.

Instead, my passion is in exploring, in discovering and learning new things about the universe around us.  To explore, we have to have a reason why.  I’ve articulated five possible reasons why before: nationalism, commerce, science, saving the Earth, and settlement.  Any or all of these can serve as the motivating reason why.

To bring it home, we need a goal tied to the reason.  Some call this a “destination”, which is being frowned upon at the highest levels.  I don’t call it a destination, I call it a goal that unites passion and discipline in the kinds of ways Kate Nasser wrote about, and which Laurence Golborne spoke about.  For me, that goal is to return to the Moon, to stay.

Imagine the passion that would be ignited by such a goal (and no, Mr. President, it’s not a ‘been there done that” sort of thing).

Imagine the level of discipline needed to bring about such an outcome with the fiscal pressures upon us and the advancement in technology needed.

Wouldn’t uniting passion and discipline be the right thing to do for human spaceflight?

Copyright © 2011, Joe Williams
Photo credit: iStockphoto/sdecoret

Passion and Discipline