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An Astronaut's Guide To Management

| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( August 27, 2014, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) I have been in aviation management for 31 years, during which I was also a university teacher and consultant involved in teaching aviation managers. If I were to be asked to recommend a good book for any management curriculum or programme, one book I would recommend without reservation is Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth (Random House:2013). In his book, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, one of the most accomplished astronauts in the world and former Commander of the International Space Station, not only proffers compelling wisdom to manage men and matters from the perspective of an astronaut, but also eloquently relates how his impossible dream of becoming an astronaut came true, because he made that dream come true through a carefully contrived process of formulation.

Hadfield's achievement brought to mind the famous quote by management guru Peter Drucker who said: "The best way to predict your future is to create it". It also gives justification to the quote : "if you want to achieve something you never achieved before, you have to do something you've never done before". In Drucker's words: "If you want something new, you've got to stop doing something old"

But first to management according to Hadfield. He says: " No astronaut, no matter how brilliant or brave, is a solo act. Our expertise is the result of training provided by thousands of experts around the world...we should behave the same way whether we are meeting with a head of State or a seventh grade science class, Frankly, this makes good sense even if you are not an astronaut. You never really know who will have a say in where you wind up. It could be the CEO. But it might well be the receptionist".

Hadfield is clear that every single astronaut has to be super competitive. He maintains that, in that highly competitive world, it will be disastrous both for the success of a space mission and for an astronaut's career, if one tries to better one's colleagues to score a brownie point. So obviously, snakes in suits who try to come up in their professions by cutting other's throats or depriving others of positions gained through merit who are more qualified for a position, would be a complete liability.

In his words: " One thing hasn't changed, though: Astronauts are extremely competitive...so how do you take a group of hyper-competitive people and get them to hyper-cooperate, to the point where they seek opportunities to help one another shine? it's a bit like gathering a group of sprinters and telling them that, effective immediately, they'll be running an eternal relay. They've still got to run as fast as they can, only now, they've got to root for their teammates to run even faster. They have to figure out how to hand off the baton smoothly so that the next person in line has an even better shot at success than they did".

This approach is consistent with that of Peter Drucker who said that a person who never thinks of the word "I" but always thinks of "we" gets the job done. He understands his job to be to get the work done.

Hadfield goes on to say that there is no such thing as an accidental astronaut. Ever since as a child he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969, he knew what he wanted to be and he worked relentlessly at it . He shows that achieving his dream to become an astronaut upended the saying "don't sweat the small stuff" because astronauts always sweat the details and to become one, you've got to treat every detail as equally important.

Management is tenacity of purpose. As Hadfield says about himself: "competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seemed hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems even when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything."

Another lesson Hadfield conveys is about the humility and courage required to be able to face criticism:

"In NASA, everyone's a critic. Over the years, hundreds of people weigh in on our performance on a regular basis. Our biggest blunders are put under the microscope so even more people can be made aware of them". " Check out what Hadfield did - let's be sure no one ever does that again". Drucker says along the same lines: " what's measured, improves" and "knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increased constantly, or it vanishes".

Unfortunately, in most institutions, including one I have worked in, knowledge is killed; libraries are closed; research and publications discouraged with stringent and threatening staff notices, and above all, unsackable and under-qualified bootlickers resistant to change and lacking creativity are appointed through political intervention and favouritism. All this establishes a certain "creative inertia" that gives a causal illusion that much creative work being done through leadership, only to result in fundamentally flawed and often erroneous work that is repetitive of what has already been done.

Hadfield says: " It's not enough to shelve your own competitive streak. You have to try, consciously, to help others succeed. Some people feel this is like shooting themselves in the foot - why aid someone else in creating a competitive advantage? I don't look at it that way. Helping someone else look good doesn't make me feel worse. In fact, it often improves my own performance, particularly in stressful situations".

An astronaut's guide to management seems a decided antithesis to management by snakes in suits. In an earlier article published in this journal I said: " Perhaps the most dangerous snake in a suit is what author Aaron James calls an “asshole”. In his book “Assholes: A Theory” (published in October 2012) James, a Ph.D (Harvard) philosopher who is an Associate Professor, University of California, Ervine, has an implied analogy which matches the profile of a snake in a suit. James writes that assholes populate the vast moral middle ground between the two (rapists and murderers) . They are more than the average schmuck one finds in the workplace and act out of a deep-rooted sense of entitlement, a habitual and persistent belief that they deserve special treatment. The true asshole, James writes, “is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. He is narcissistic, self-absorbed, impolite, and permanently thoughtless to those around him—and it is almost always a him—nearly to the point of sociopathy”( here I disagree as there are females who fit into this category as well)".

It seems we have much to learn from astronauts.

The author is a former Senior Legal Officer at the International Civil Aviation Organization where he worked for 23 years.

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