Adam Steltzner wasn't a math nerd in high school. He passed geometry the second time with an F-plus. He played in a band, smoked pot and engaged in plenty of risk-taking activity -- climbing on roofs, biking down mountain roads, skateboarding in traffic. One night after graduating, while driving to play a gig with his band, he noticed how the constellation Orion was in a different place than it was on the way there. Curiosity got the better of him, and he looked into an astronomy class at the local community college that ultimately led to an engineering PhD.
How fitting, then, that decades later, Steltzner would lead the team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory charged with landing the Mars Curiosity rover, a feat of engineering that became known as the "seven minutes of terror" for the risky sequence of events that had to happen for the machine to make a safe landing. When it did so successfully in August 2012, Steltzner and his team erupted in a euphoric and infectious Mission Control celebration. It was impossible, watching the video, not to feel the pride and elation of their technological triumph.
Three years later, Steltzner has pulled together what he learned about leading a team of people that was "operating at the edge of what is possible," as he says. In his new book released this week, "The Right Kind of Crazy," Steltzner -- whose pompadour and rockabilly style paled only to engineer Bobak Ferdowsi's mohawk -- shares his accidental entry into aerospace, what matters when motivating a team for a project that takes nearly 10 years and what it was like to experience the jubilation in the room that day. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you ever think you would write a book about leadership?
No. In fact, one of the big challenges when we started writing the book was we really didn’t know what kind of book we were writing. One publisher saw a book that was absolutely, 100 percent a leadership book, and I frankly didn’t know that that was something I could write. But Penguin said 'look, we don’t necessarily need to know what this book is. Your backstory is rich. The building of this incredible machine was such a challenge. We know there are lessons that are gleanable by a book’s audience in this story, so just write.'
I’ve never read a single book on leadership in my life. But I do feel I am instinctually drawn to fill leadership vacuums. I really love good leadership. When I see it happening, when I’m being led well, I love it. It feels good to me. And I love teams -- I love working with other people. So when I was leading this team, the models of all the good leadership I’d received in the past was my aspiration for what I wanted the team experience to be. It was only in writing the book that I was able to stand back and give it a little greater perspective.
So for someone who's not familiar with the Mars Curiosity rover, give us a little summary about your role and the mission here.
We were tasked with landing the largest extraterrestrial rover ever put on another planet. Her name was Curiosity. I loved her name. We were tasked with landing this huge rover on the surface of Mars, and to do that we had to invent a new way of landing it. My role was I led the team that did that development. We worked on it for the better part of a decade.
That kind of timeline is not something most managers work under. What did you learn about keeping people motivated on a project when reaching the goal is so far away?
I really looked for our team to have fun, to enjoy each other, to even develop a culture of play within our work. We take our work very, very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves quite as seriously. I looked to that partly for selfish reasons, to be honest, because I want to enjoy myself in those many hours of every day that I spend with my colleagues. But I also looked toward making it something we would relish, we would enjoy, we would invent -- so we would challenge one another. I looked to create this team culture in which we really, really were having a good time.
Describe what you mean by the importance of “self-authorization,” which you discuss in the book.
As the leader, I am absolutely ready for -- and encourage -- anybody on my team to try and challenge me. There is no cultural hierarchy. We’re all the same, in the eyes of the work that we are doing. It's authorizing yourself to participate in a meaningful and conceivably disruptive way to the status quo. It's an essential act of leadership, but it’s also an integral part of every team member in a very effective team.
That brings up another subject which I think is important. Certainly, some of the best leadership is through influence as opposed to authority. The strength of your arguments move people to follow you.
Yes, you have a definition of leadership in that chapter, where you say “the trick is to exhibit leadership — lead — without having to claim leadership or to subjugate others." Why do you think this is so hard for many leaders to learn?
It is emotionally challenging to lead — at least for me. People armor themselves up with authority. It takes a lot to choose not to do that. I think the historical accident of my life allows me to do that.
What do you mean by that?
Who I am and how I got here. The years of psychotherapy and the wasted youth with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. All that stuff puts me in a mind-set that might be a little different than the average person who went to Wharton and went off and and got a management consulting job.
It was blown out of proportion by the media. If you really look at the teams within which I work there's all sorts of shapes and sizes. The fact that I might be a little bit out of the normal distribution -- I don’t know if that’s a plus or minus. Depending on who I’m meeting, there could be a potential first-impression deficit if someone wants to have their lives right down the middle.
Why I say the historical accident of my life is that I found myself at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is a place that’s a real meritocracy. It really is. That's less usual than I would hope it would be. This place is pretty tolerant and not many folks are struggling with how I look.
You describe in the book some mistakes you made early in terms of your leadership style, such as showing up at Thursday night happy hours with your team.
I love contributing and being a member of the team. This was my first real experience with leading and I wanted to experience all of it. I wanted to drink deep of the cup. I was out there every Thursday night. It’s only really in hindsight that I realize that doesn’t make the space for some team members to commiserate with themselves about my inadequacies. I know that looking back, and I could feel it at the time, but honestly I wasn’t capable of acting on it at the time. I was in some sense too engaged. A real hard part of leading is letting go.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about leadership from someone you’ve worked with?
I have two. One is advice from [project chief engineer] Rob Manning: Remember the quiet voices. 'Listen for the quiet voices on the team.' I happen to have a large, bright, loud personality, and so I have to really consciously work to not dominate or blow out team members. When you’re operating at the edge of what is possible, you need everything you can get from everyone. I don’t know a priori whether the quietest, most sheepish member of my team hasn't got the absolutely best solution. You never know that.
The other is from my good friend and mentor [and deputy project manager] Richard Cook: 'Give it away.' What he meant by that was if you’re an inventive person who has a lot of ideas, don’t hold onto them. If somebody thinks an idea that was yours was theirs, give it away. It starts being a tremendous vote of self confidence for yourself. Use my ideas all you want, I will make more. In some fields, anxieties over intellectual property can cripple the work of a team looking to innovate. All of us want to be seen for our contribution. And when you’re leading, I think you have to understand that you’re probably doing the right thing if you don’t get the credit.
I was reminded the other day -- when the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket landed, and the room literally exploded in excitement -- of the euphoria in the room when the Mars rover landed at JPL. What's it like to be part of that?
There are hundreds of people whose careers have been involved in this. The pressure is incredible, and to have it all pay off is almost surreal. You’re elated, but you’re also numb. You’re like in a bubble. I promise as I walked down to the press conference, I really could almost not feel the ground. It was that whole walking-on-air thing.
I was personally unprepared for it, because we were supposed to figure out all the things that could go wrong. Unlike an athlete whose job is to pre-image success in his or her mind to help his or her body do the right thing, we spent all of our time pre-imaging failure. It felt like [imagining] success was a dereliction of duty.
And what was it like for your team?
About four days before landing, I gathered the team and I said there’s this terrible disruption coming in our universe. It’s like going into a black hole and being pulled into another dimension. There’s no way you can take an extrapolation of what you’re experiencing today and have it be a good representation of what it’s going to feel like. Whether we’re successful or whether we failed, it was going to change it. I wanted them to think about all that they had contributed. I didn’t want any one failure -- a thousand things could have gone wrong, 10,000 things could have gone wrong -- to nullify their contributions.
I also wanted them to think about how they had not measured up; how they had stopped short of giving to our mutual endeavor. I didn’t want any success to erase in their minds what they could do better next time.
When landing night comes, it changes everything. The team is changed. Our work was done in a moment. We had some documentation, but that bond -- that crucible in which the team had been formed -- was shattered. It’s actually a very sad thing. It’s very difficult to duplicate the sense of connection that working together under such pressure creates.