Leadership Lessons of an Astronaut

Photo credit Oddharmonic

Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut in space, died earlier this week at age 61. Dr. Ride answered a NASA newspaper ad for astronauts in 1978 when she was finishing her Ph.D. in Physics at Stanford University, and flew on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983 and 1984.

An excellent scientist and engineer, Dr. Ride also demonstrated outstanding leadership.  In 1986, President Reagan appointed Ride to the panel investigating the explosion of the Challenger in January of that year, which killed everyone on board.  Dr. Ride became known as a panelist who asked tough questions, and helped unearth testimony demonstrating that NASA had been warned about the possible failure of the O-rings on the shuttle’s rocket boosters in cold weather.  Political pressure had been brought to bear and the launch went forward on January 28 despite the cold weather.

Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who had warned his managers and NASA, had been shunned by colleagues for speaking out. Dr. Ride, despite her reputation for reticence, publicly hugged him after his testimony before the panel, and was the only member of the panel to show support for him.

Dr. Ride subsequently served on the panel investigating the crash of the Columbia shuttle in 2003, the only panelist on both investigations.  She stated that part of the problem at NASA was that “people had forgotten some of the lessons learned from the Challenger accident.”  Dr. Ride understood the importance of inclusive leadership, of decision-making that draws on the wisdom and expertise of all.  By disregarding the warnings of engineers, NASA had walked into catastrophe.

In 1987, Ride created NASA’s Office of Exploration for long-range planning and led a team which wrote a widely-acclaimed report, “Leadership and America’s Future in Space.” Again, Ride took bold stands and demonstrated her integrity and vision in leadership.

After retiring from NASA in 1987, Dr. Ride, instead of resting on her laurels, devoted her energy to inspiring young people, especially girls, to follow their dreams in math, science, and engineering.  As a Science Fellow at Stanford and then as a Professor of Physics at the University of California at San Diego, she used her platform to teach middle school students about science.  Co-authoring six books on science for children, Ride also overcame her adversity to publicity to appear on “Sesame Street,” to sponsor science fairs, and to train teachers.  Dr. Ride became a leading role model and educator for girls, their teachers, and their parents.

In 2009, US News & World Report named Dr. Ride one of America’s Best Leaders.

Sally Ride, scientist extraordinaire, also demonstrated to the world what excellence in leadership looks like.  With her integrity and vision, she called NASA to account and stirred it to a larger vision, blazed a trail for women in science, and inspired countless young people.  May we learn lessons in leadership from her fine example.

6 Responses to “Leadership Lessons of an Astronaut”

  1. 1 roomforthespirit July 27, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks for this post, Margaret. I know that she has taken some grief for not coming out before her death – that some people wish she led by being a voice for gay rights. It strikes me that true leadership involves deciding where to focus one’s energy. She was uniquely positioned to have an impact on girls in terms of math and science. I don’t like second guessing her decision about where to focus her energy – it was her decision to make.

    • 2 executivesoulblog July 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Carol. Yes, she was uniquely positioned to have an impact on girls in terms of math and science, and she used her influence at NASA, as well. I agree that it was her decision where to focus her energy.

  2. 3 Susie Allen July 31, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Thank you for this post about Sally Ride. I remember her well as the first woman astronaut, but did not know about her leadership roles afterward. I am impressed by her willingness to stand clearly in what she believed was right and fruitful in the shuttle investigations; and even to step outside her comfort zone – as with her response to Roger Boisjoly – to affirm him and confirm her support. While it might have been helpful and empowering to other gay women if Sally had been more public and vocal about gay rights, I wonder if not doing so allowed her to preserve her privacy while focusing her leadership in places where her experience was unique and more powerful.

    • 4 executivesoulblog July 31, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      Susie, yes, she was an inspiring role model for standing clearly for what she believed was right at NASA. And I hope her posthumous coming out can help in the fight for justice for gays and lesbians.

  3. 5 susanloucks August 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I’ve been thinking about how one challenges existing systems – or the thinking of individuals – with both strength and compassion. Thanks for providing another example for investigation!

    • 6 executivesoulblog August 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm

      Yes, I think Sally Ride was an excellent example of how to challenge individuals and systems with both strength and compassion at the same time. She inspires me because of that. I often find myself responding with either strength or compassion, but not both at the same time. I’m practicing. Thanks for this, Susan.

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