Michael Foale, astronaut extraordinaire teaches on leadership and teamwork


Michael Foale explains the highly successful teamwork and leadership training model used by NASA and ISS. It has clear application in the corporate world.

michael foale
Michael Foale, astronaut

Very, very occasionally I get to meet someone whose life experiences are so extraordinary, so different and, accordingly so interesting that I am immediately drawn into asking question after question about topics, the answers to which can help change the world I live in. So it was when I had the privilege of scoring a meeting with Michael Foale, six times astronaut. That’s a record, and he’s a Brit which are two reasons to be in awe.

In this instance, my focus wasn’t upon the work he did on a crippled Mir station that turned him into a hero among heroes, but what it takes to be a leader in the modern world.

The leadership conundrum

The reason I ask this is because in technology circles, there’s much talk about the role of leaders and leadership where the demands of different generations sometimes appear to clash. The much vaunted, and dare I say sometimes feared Millennials, come up from time to time but that’s possibly another story.

Foale is uniquely qualified to answer these questions because having been turned down twice, his third time application essay to join the NASA astronaut program focused upon team building. That infers issues around leadership. He joined the program in 1987 and flew on a variety of missions from 1992 to 2004.

Myth and reality

Foale readily admitted that coming into the NASA program as a relatively young university post doctoral graduate, he thought team work was about discussing things among colleagues and collectively coming to a decision. This was an antidote to what he saw as ‘leadership by yelling’ – the model he most closely associated with the military (his father was an Air Commodore in the British RAF,) and which we still see popularized in boot camp style movies.

It turns out that while NASA astronauts are predominantly drawn from the military (as they are in most countries,) the qualities NASA looks for in candidates are all about the ability to work effectively in teams.

That makes perfect sense when you think about it because people working on the Shuttle in space or on space stations are entirely dependent upon each other in ways that are so much more than just ‘getting along.’ It’s about accomplishing a given set of tasks in an alien contained environment where there’s no way to back out or be readily replaced.

Team building efforts have changed over the years but Foale recounted the more recent approach as follows:

There’s a difference between large program management and small team management, and in the large program, it is hierarchical, communications fairly trickle down, it’s difficult to do broad broadcasts, and definitely bringing in all the opinions all at once round a table isn’t possible in a large program.

But you know, in a small group of six, 12, you can certainly do that. We used an approach, starting quite recently in the year 2000 or so, where we adopted the outdoor leadership models of the National Outdoor Leadership School called NOLS in the US.

The NOLS program

NOLS uses a set of wilderness expeditions as the backdrop to teaching team members that anyone can lead.

The one we focused on as astronauts, and I was developing a leadership program for astronauts, was self-care, followship, and leadership.

So there’s three points, and the self-care is get to work, have your teeth brushed, have all your stuff packed up and be ready to go, and the punctuality’s part of that, but self-care, which is have yourself together. Then the followship is the most important one of all for astronauts who are already pretty good at self-care. The followship is look at what your teammates are doing, see if any of them have not managed self-care, help them out, and then, so that automatically implies a spare amount of self-care on your own part, because you’ve already got your stuff together.

And then start looking to the leader, the assigned leader who’s not shouting orders, and ask him or her, “What needs to be done? What’s the plan today?” Or ask them whatever and keep doing that. And you look at your leader, and you say, “Has he got it together?”

And you might go, “Well, he looks a bit worried, he’s tense, this is a big deal, I realize it’s a big deal for him. He’s got all this hanging on his shoulders. He’s got to get us from A to B with all the water and all the other stuff across those two canyons,” whatever, when we do it for real in the canyon lands or in the snows of Canada.

Then you say, “Well, what do you think the plan is?” And if he or she is slow, you go, “Well, maybe we should do this,” and you propose an idea, but as soon as they get rolling, you back off and let them come up with their plan, and then if you’re a follower, you’ll join the other mates, and you say, “Are we ready?”

The leader, if he or she’s doing a good job that day, says, “Okay, I realize what my followers are doing, thanks very much. This is my plan. Followers, what do you think?” And then the leader looks around and says, “Do you all agree? Yes?” At that point, everyone’s actually brought in just by nodding their head.

In these scenarios, Foale is describing a form of quasi consensus where there is a clearly assigned leader whose purpose is to articulate plans, get everyone onside and then let followers in the team get on with what they are supposed to get done.

For their part, followers are there to support the leader, dropping ideas into the mix that will help the leader move forward with the plan or even take a position of leadership should the occasion arise – as it did at the time of the Mir station accident. The key throughout is the need for everyone to listen for one another.

It sounds like an odd way of organizing teams but it works and was especially needed for the International Space Station (ISS) mission where there are people from many different cultures and backgrounds.

War and peace

Foale made an interesting observation about the joint NASA and Mir programs that morphed into the ISS program and how the application of this team/leadership program helped.

At the time of the NASA/Mir program, the Cold War between Russia and the USA was still in play so it wasn’t as though the Russian cosmonauts and their American counterparts were totally keen on each other. As military types, they each viewed the other as enemies so it wasn’t as though they were looking to become bosom buddies in the name of political expediency.

The context wasn’t terribly promising. They took everyone out onto a NOLS course that gave everyone the opportunity to act as leaders over the course of the training. The rotation of roles among the members of the group allowed for frictions to be worked out while keeping the end goals in mind, fostering a sense of both shared purpose and direction.

We hear about these types of away days/weekends in corporate land but I sometimes wonder whether they are a way to perform lip service to training that has become flavor of the month or momentarily fashionable. That may sound cynical but then I’ve spent too much time observing otherwise brilliant but dictatorial leaders, a concept that Foale regards as:

Utterly foolish.

Make no mistake, Foale had misgivings:

I was really worried that the Russian military would say to me, “Ah, this is crap. You Americans, you’re all screwed up on your management theory.” They loved it, the Russians really were the best participants because somehow they could buy into it and that’s the secret sauce.

Who me?

As we concluded what for me was a fascinating conversation, Foale told me how, following the Mir mission, he was asked to build the current NASA leadership training. He was skeptical because in his eyes he wasn’t a leader. But it was explained that he had earned that right by virtue of his actions in helping the crippled Mir recover from a life threatening situation.

Argue the merits as you will, but what Foale is really saying is that anyone has the potential to lead but it’s an earned right, especially among peers. And therein lies the rub. As we in the technology world talk about all kinds of talent management programs, talent retention and leadership training I wonder whether we really do give everyone that opportunity.

As Foale says, this method works in small groups but then businesses are formed of many small groups. When I hear that someone has a team of 100, 200 or 500 people I tend to giggle. It’s tough enough leading a dozen people so how on earth anyone can imagine for one moment that they can effectively lead numbers running hundreds or thousands is a delusional mystery to me.

My take

But then I guess being part of corporate culture is not quite the same as putting your life on the line in an alien environment. Still, I felt I’d learned something important that matters in the changing and often uncertain world in which we are currently living.

It IS possible to successfully bring very different people and cultures together. That is a ray of hope from which I hope others can draw. And it is a conversation I will remember long into the future.

As an end note…although now 60 years old, if he had his way, Foale would be back flying in space again. Why? The answer should be obvious, you get a view of the world and space that very, very few people see which he describes as ‘beautiful.’ Now there’s a thought.

And finally…there is always a sense of irony when you know that I was in conversation with Michael Foale at a ServiceMax event. ServiceMax was acquired by GE this time last year and I will later talk about how well that acquisition has gone.

Image credit - the author

Disclosure - ServiceMax is a premier partner at time of writing and covered my travel and expense for visiting the Berlin Maximize 2017 event.