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The Management Lessons Retired Astronaut Scott Kelly Learned in Space

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 Scott Kelly on a Dec. 21, 2015 spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Scott Kelly on a Dec. 21, 2015 spacewalk outside the International Space Station. NASA file photo

Given the lack of gravity, personal space, or guarantee of surviving any given day, one would think space stations would rank among the more stressful, conflict-ridden workplaces.

But according to retired US astronaut Scott Kelly—who spent 520 days in space over four different missions and was commander of the International Space Station during his final, year-long tour—working in space is pretty chill.

“It feels like when you wake up, you’re at work, and when you go to sleep, you’re still at work. It feels like you’re living in your office,” Kelly said in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review’s Josh Olejarz. “But it’s an incredible office. Right? It’s got an incredible view.

Sounds fun enough. So Olejarz probed deeper, asking what astronauts do when they’re annoyed by coworkers, but can’t escape them:

“There are a lot of people that are my very close friends, family, people I know, people I worked with. They wouldn’t do well. But NASA and our international partners pick people that can deal well with being close quarters with other people. They work well together. They’re good teammates. They’re good followers. So, the potential for conflict is very low.”

“But you deal with it. You know, you have your own private space if you need to get away. I’m sure people vent to the folks on the ground. We talk to a psychiatrist, psychologist every couple of weeks. They ask us, you know, ever time, how are your crew members getting along? How are they doing? How are you dealing with them? Anything they do that’s bothering you? I’ve never really personally experienced much conflict—almost no conflict in space. You know, occasionally someone will do something to get on your nerves, but then you realize you’re probably doing shit to get on their nerves, too.”

Astounding as “almost no conflict in space” sounds, the notion of a drama-free workplace seems far more tenable (even without an office psychologist) when you consider Kelly’s leadership tactics and his coworkers’ team-first focus.

Focus on something bigger than yourself

Management gurus often sound trite when they preach the importance of motivating your team by connecting them to a greater cause. Not so you’re literally working for the good of humanity. Aside from the scientific-discovery aspect of space missions, international cooperation in space helped the US ensure that Russian rocket scientists were, as Kelly puts it, “occupied with something peaceful, versus something nefarious, like a nuclear weapons program, or building missiles for our enemies.”

Maybe your day job doesn’t help you feel like a goodwill ambassador or an extension of civilization. But the fundamental values bonding Kelly and his team—of doing something challenging, together—are easily relatable.

Like most people, Kelly didn’t know the majority of his coworkers personally before working (or, in his case, flying) with them. Instead, they honed relationships by being vulnerable about the challenges and risks of their profession, and grateful for the opportunity they shared.

Don’t hone a single “management style”

One would think that directing the International Space Station or flying a spacecraft would demand tight-reigned leadership at all times. Kelly, however, took a more flexible approach. As he told HBR: “If there’s a fire on the Space Station, my leadership style is those of a tyrant: Tell people what to do, and I don’t want any questions.” But in other circumstances, he was more collaborative—and at other times he would delegate.

Kelly’s situation-based leadership style demands a blend of confidence, self-awareness, and humility. By setting clear guidelines when times get tough, you help your team trust you, and one another. And when there’s no single solution to a problem, by acting as an equal, intent on learning from your team rather than imposing your own views, you foster innovation and mutual respect.

Essential to this balance is knowing when, and how to pick your battles:

“If I felt like I was being stressed because the ground was asking me to do something that I felt like it didn’t make sense, which sometimes is the case when you’re in space, I would always feel obligated to say, hey, we can do this better this way, or maybe we shouldn’t be doing this at all,” Kelly told HBR. “But in the end, I would always try to remind myself of the big picture, and the big picture was, hey, I’m a government employee. I’m going to be here for so much time. I’m going to be paid a certain amount. And whether I do this thing that makes no sense, or whether I do something that makes more sense to me, it doesn’t really matter. So long as it’s not a safety issue. So sometimes you just got to go with the flow.”

Roger that.

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