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National park trek saves NASA mission

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management,Profiles in Leadership

When Jeffrey Ashby, a former NASA space shuttle commander, learned in 2002 that he would lead a mission to the International Space Station, he also learned that NASA had already picked his crew. They included scientists, a doctor and a Russian who spoke no English.

Even though Ashby had no input into choosing his crew, he had to ensure the diverse team collaborated well during the high-stakes mission. To bond as a team, Ashby asked the crew to join him in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park for an 11-day trek, the same length as their upcoming NASA mission.

Each day of the trek, Ashby rotated leaders who guided the team to traverse canyons. When the group reached a passage blocked by cascading water, the team disagreed on what to do. Some wanted to retreat and circle around, but they were overruled by others who voted to head straight into the waterfall.

Ashby admired how those who lost the vote did not sulk; indeed, one of them volunteered to lift everyone through the most hazardous part of the slippery water crossing.

The team’s experience hiking in Utah paid off when they went into space. About three miles from their docking destination, the crew realized the computer readouts were wrong. Docking in spac­e requires extreme precision, and they only had one chance to get it right.

With a minute to go before they’d lose the opportunity to dock (which would have meant a $1 billion mission failure), the crew pulled together to improvise. Ashby led his colleague to dock manually, even looking out the window to gauge their proximity to the target.

Their ability to work seamlessly under pressure saved the mission. Ashby highlights the importance of cultivating active followers who are willing to communicate honestly with the leader based on trust.

“Everyone considers me to be a leader only after I give them the power to be active followers,” he concludes.

— Adapted from “The Power of ‘Active Followers’ From Mission Control to Mountain Climbing,” Knowledge@Wharton.

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