What event helped you become the leader you are today? 

My meeting with Astronaut Ron McNair. Like me, he grew up in the segregated South and against his own beliefs applied to MIT. He didn’t think he could do it, but people encouraged him. He ended up at MIT and earned a Ph.D. in laser physics. He came to the astronaut office and was one of the first astronauts selected in the group of 1978 and flew twice. At that time, I was a test pilot not far away. Ron came to a reunion of Navy test pilot graduates. He asked me if I was going to fly for the space program. I said, “They'll never pick me.” He said, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. How do you know if you don't apply?”

Lo and behold, I got nominated by the Marine Corps to NASA and was invited to Houston. The people I met were incredible—people like Franklin Chang-Diaz, now one of the world's foremost plasma physicists, and [astronaut] Sally Ride. On May 31, 1980, I got a call from Houston asking if I wanted to be an astronaut. That's why I'm sitting here today.

What in your background influenced your leadership style?

The two things that shaped me were my upbringing in South Carolina and my military training. I was privileged to have the most incredible parents anybody could have. They were both schoolteachers and relatively religious folks who made me go to church and Sunday school. I wasn't Beaver Cleaver, but I was raised in a relatively traditional black family in the segregated South. My ethics, morals and having a true north when it comes to behavior are all things I attribute to my mom and dad and the church environment I grew up in.

I think everything else I’ve learned comes from my training at the Naval Academy and my preparation to be a Marine officer. Among the first things I learned was to take responsibility for your actions and don't be afraid to tell people you don't know something. There's a saying there that you always tell people when you don't know something. You tell them, “I'll find out, sir.”

What are the agency’s top three priorities?

One is safely fly out the shuttle. After the Columbia accident, the nation decided to phase out the space shuttle program and move on to something else, so we're trying to get back to the spirit of exploration. We also want to maintain safety and support for astronauts operating on the international space station. Finally, we have to make hard choices and deliver on our commitments.

Do you visit schools to teach young people about NASA, and how do you interact with other agencies? 

I do, but I don't get to as much as I used to and would like to. If I could pick a group that I would love to spend most of my time with, it would be elementary school kids, particularly before third grade. Studies have shown us that, particularly in the minority community, we lose young men after third grade. If we don't have them fired up, excited and raring to learn, we probably lose them after that. At NASA, we target middle-school kids with a program called, “A Summer of Innovation.”

I spend a significant amount of time with our partner agencies, such as Peace Corps, USAID and DOD [Department of Defense]. I want them to know what we do and why it is important to them. President Obama wants us to knock down the stovepipes and start working together as a country and a government. Some of that is apple pie and idealism, but it doesn't work if you don't try it.

What advice would you give to other federal leaders who want to encourage employees to think big?

One of the cardinal rules of being a Marine is that you take care of your people and they will take care of you. That's critically important. Some of us forget that, while we work for the president, we must also take care of our workforce. I try to communicate with employees through emails and video messages, but the foremost thing I try to do is visit the nine NASA centers and our federally funded research and development center. I try to be on hand for every shuttle launch and landing. It’s important to stay in touch with people at all levels and let them know my door is always open. Every NASA center is a little city. We depend on every member of that community pulling their share of the load to be successful.

How can federal leaders encourage the next generation to join public service?

Tell people how proud they are to be a part of their organization. There’s no better example than yourself. Tell them why you enjoy what you do. I want my employees to know they're a vital part of this organization and that they make a difference every day.

More from On Leadership:

USGS’s Marcia McNutt on leadership

Tom Vilsack on growing into politics

Are you listening to me, boss?

Woes of the recently promoted

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