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Post Leadership
Posted at 12:06 PM ET, 08/06/2012

Mars landing of NASA rover Curiosity offers three lessons for leaders


The Curiosity Rover mission team raise their arms to celebrate the landing of Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Damian Dovarganes - AP)
The news that NASA’s rover Curiosity landed on Mars early Monday morning was breathtaking. But watching the reaction in the control room was even more so.

If you don’t tear up when you watch this video from inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, check your pulse. The excitement that builds through the room while the team waits, the cheers that explode when the rover touches down, the tears and the hugs in celebration of a remarkable achievement—the reaction is genuinely emotional, incredibly joyful and altogether human.

But watching it also made me wonder: What if we could all experience a “seven minutes of terror” at work?

That’s the name given to the nerve-racking landing routine that occurs as the rover hurtles through the Martian atmosphere, a process that was even more fraught with anxiety this time around because a new landing technique was being tested. (Budget woes at NASA surely made the apprehension worse.) The team that completes those seven minutes successfully will no doubt experience greater bonds with each other, increased confidence in themselves and their team, and the thrill of work that means something extraordinary to both their organization and the wider world.

Sure, it’s hard to compare winning a big new client or launching a brand new product with successfully landing a spacecraft onto the surface of another planet. This is not only an achievement for NASA and rocket science, but for all of humanity.

Still, there are things leaders can take away from the energy and emotion in that control room. For one, everyone was in the room celebrating—and more important, experiencing—the win together. In today’s workplace, too many achievements, no matter how big or how small, are recognized with a mass e-mail to everyone involved, or at a happy hour that takes place weeks later once everyone’s schedules can be coordinated. The moment loses its luster. Whenever possible, gather people together to experience a win together.

Second, provide updates to relieve the tension. Too many organizations are close-lipped until the final results are in. But the tick-tock of events in NASA’s control room—“we’ve found a nice flat place, we’re coming in,” “we’ve got images coming down, folks!”—help to build excitement and spread the energy before the big moment when touchdown is confirmed. The same is true even when people aren’t in a high-stakes control room together. Sharing good news along the way boosts enthusiasm and further extends people’s feeling of achievement.

And of course, set big goals in the first place. Your big, hairy, audacious goal (as leadership guru Jim Collins likes to say) may never compare to landing a rover on Mars. But if the goal is set high enough, and means something to the world outside your organization, it may very well spark just as strong of a reaction when it’s finally achieved.

More on the Mars landing:

Live blog | Successful landing on Mars

Photos | NASA Curiosity’s ambitious mission

Video | Mars rover makes ‘beautiful’ landing

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By  |  12:06 PM ET, 08/06/2012

Tags:  leadership, nasa, mars, curiosity

 
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