The astronaut program is suffering from low morale, internal division and an autocratic management system that uses flight assignments as weapons to suppress discussion, according to a story in Monday's Washington Post.
The story was based on a series of interviews with nine former or current astronauts. It is one of the many revelations about the space program coming out in the wake of the shuttle disaster and it suggests that the best and the brightest are feeling the same malaise that is gripping corporate America: morale problems, a breakdown of confidence in management, reduced productivity and an exodus of talent. It is a phenomenon that Marilyn Loden, author of "Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys," blames largely on what she calls "masculinism" in corporations.
At the heart of the masculine corporate culture, she argues, is competition and winning. The values that follow out of that include the need for tight control, which creates a need for authoritarian management. Assertiveness and aggressive behavior are required toward subordinates and competitive behavior is expected toward peers in management. Interest in tactics and strategies for the corporation are prized. "Instead of using employee satisfaction as a measure of managerial effectiveness, corporations often use financial results as the only leadership criterion," she writes.
Loden, who has worked for many years in management training and organizational development for some of the country's largest corporations, became convinced that one of the reasons women were not making it into top management was that they did not feel comfortable with the masculine management style. Many, she writes, are striking out on their own as entrepreneurs because they are unwilling to become male clones and suppress their own natural leadership style. "Even if all were well in corporate America today," writes Loden, "top management should be seriously concerned about this brain drain among some of its most talented middle managers."
But all is not well, as the challenge from international competition makes clear. Loden argues that industries geared to mass production and relying on cheap labor will continue to shift production to Third World countries, while those that rely on the skills of a highly educated work force will flourish here. "To compete effectively, basic changes are called for in the very structure of U.S. corporations and the manner in which they are run," Loden says.
Among those changes are team units, which facilitate the flow of information and promote open communication, and participative management, which, she writes, "maximizes the amount of knowledge and insight which can be brought to any situation." It fosters consensus, shared responsibility and commitment to a goal by the whole group. It is a management style that requires very different skills from the authoritarian style.
"Such new leaders must have a more egalitarian philosophy about the people they manage. Their skills must consist primarily of facilitating skills that bring out the best thinking with work groups, help to integrate different points of view, and encourage consensus problem-solving."
And, she points out, these are precisely the kinds of skills that women have developed through a lifetime of socialization.
"For many of the characteristics being touted as critical for future success -- concern for people, interpersonal skills, intuitive management, and creative problem-solving -- are qualities that women as a group are encouraged to develop and rely on throughout their lives."
Loden looks at the different techniques of managing conflicts, for example, and finds that male managers view conflict as a win-lose situation in which the goal is to come out the winner. Female managers favor a collaborative approach based on the belief that a creative solution can make both parties come out winners. Or they adopt an accommodating mode that "assumes that the nature of the relationship between the parties in conflict is more important than the outcome."
Loden makes the case that there is, indeed, a legitimate feminine leadership style that corporations need to recognize and reward just as they recognize and reward the masculine style. She argues in her book that the two approaches can be complementary but that corporations that ignore the feminine style will be overlooking the pool of talent that is perhaps best able to cope with the managerial challenges of the future. The folks at NASA are not the only ones who ought to give it a read.