Leadership lessons from space

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In its last astronaut selection, the Canadian Space Agency had 5,000 applicants and chose two. With the kind of skills required for the space station, it’s no surprise the hiring process is so competitive. For any incident for which you would call an expert, from a medical problem to a broken toilet, the astronauts on the space station need to solve the problem themselves.

“It was an interesting challenge of building what I saw as an enormous pyramid of knowledge. When the pyramid comes to a point – when you have to do something and there is very little time – it relies on an enormous underpinning of understanding and capability,” Chris Hadfield says. “As the leader, I have this much time available; this is the raw material I have. We need to start gathering the competence amongst ourselves. Choosing the right people is really key.”

On Hadfield’s first shuttle flight, he and his crew had the important task of attaching a docking module to the Russian space station Mir so that subsequent shuttles would have a permanent place to dock. The module had to hit a target the size of a coffee cup, within a two-minute window, and at the exact right speed.

On approach, the shuttle’s two laser sensors started giving disparate measurements, so Hadfield used his thumb as a reference point to estimate the distance and used a stopwatch to tell his crew when to fire the thrusters. The shuttle hit the centre of the target at the right speed, with three seconds to spare.

“I didn’t invent that in real time. We reverted to that in the simulator many times, so even though it was not expected to have both our lasers fail, it was something that was within our scope of preparation,” Hadfield said. “It was purely the result of visualizing failure and sweating the small stuff. Sweat the small stuff, because that’s where your life is and that’s where success is going to lie.”

Read more from Hadfield in this month's HRD magazine.

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