This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with four expert contributors — Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, Space Policy Institute Professor Emeritus John Logsdon, NYU Professor Kerry Sulkowicz, and former NASA leadership program director Gail S. Williams — about the leadership challenges of shuttering NASA’s iconic space shuttle program.
As Atlantis lifted off Friday from the Kennedy Space Center, America bid farewell to its space shuttle program. It was an emotional moment for the country, and, in a less public way, represents a major loss for NASA workers. It was also something perhaps less obvious: a leadership moment for Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator.
(Dave Cross) - Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and, as managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs and boards of directors on leadership and organizational culture.
Read all of our roundtable pieces on the leadership challenges facing NASA following the end of the space shuttle program.
So far, Bolden’s handling of this inflection point in America’s space program can serve as a lesson for leaders faced with the challenge of closing beloved initiatives—a difficult process no matter how rational and justified these decisions may be. As the centerpiece of NASA for 30 years, the space shuttle brought further glory to the agency that gave us the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, not to mention steady employment for generations of employees.
In a speech delivered to the National Press Club on July 1, Bolden did what a good leader should do under such circumstances: He made an emotional connection to his people, was honest about the facts, acknowledged the loss they’ve just experienced while putting it into larger context, and painted a vision that realistically yet reassuringly connects the past with the future.
Bolden, himself a retired Marine Corps major general and a four-time shuttle flight veteran, has instant credibility with NASA's employees. And in his speech to the National Press Club, he drew on his own career to establish that emotional connection. “I spent 14 years at NASA before leaving and then returning to head the agency. Some of the people I respect most in the world are my fellow astronauts. Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. I'm not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch. I'm not going to let it flounder because we pursued a path that we couldn't sustain.”
Early in his remarks, he addressed head-on the concern that last week’s final shuttle flight marks the end of America’s dominance of spaceflight. Naysayers, he said, “must be living on another planet.” While he didn’t dwell on the sense of loss that some NASA employees must be feeling, he did add, “We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary – and difficult – steps today to ensure America’s pre-eminence in human space exploration for years to come.”
In his more private leadership role inside NASA, one presumes that Bolden is attuned to the multiple layers of meaning in the shuttle’s last flight, ranging from the literal loss of jobs to the more purely emotional losses of purpose, self-esteem and organizational pride that may come with such a transition. He would do well to tolerate, and even encourage, employees to voice such feelings. No matter how exciting the new plans might be, it’s a crucial step in helping the organization transcend this loss and move on.