Skip to content

Leadership Lessons From Space

What does leadership in a fast-growing space industry look like? And how can Earth-bound companies take note?
What does leadership in a fast-growing space industry look like? And how can Earth-bound companies take note?
  • The rapid growth of the space industry and its leadership provide important lessons for organisational management, says business school research
  • ‘Industry leaders’ in space travel are companies and/or countries who are well-resourced, flexible, collaborative and secure
  • Essential skills for leading a team of astronauts, such as diversity, preparation and dealing with pressure could prove vital to Earth-bound leadership

“SpaceX shakes up Starship leadership”, CNBC.

“We really want to be first’: UK fights to lead new space race” Financial Times.

“U.S. Space Force partnership will prepare leaders for new challenges”, John Hopkins University.

We’ve witnessed a meteoric shift in space travel, with technology increasing our capabilities for space travel and an increasingly broader spectrum of people at the helm of the industry shifting the agenda. One thing is clear – the leadership of this new era of greater discovery will define it.

The possibilities are seemingly as endless as space itself. But one thing that has remained steadfast on this voyage of discovery is the leadership skills required to successfully guide a spacecraft and its crew into the unknown and return them safely.

Back on Earth, as our industries face ever more unpredictable futures, are there leadership lessons that can be learned from the accelerating space race? A number of leadership experts working at top business schools across the UK and Europe believe so.

What insights into executive management and team organisation can we learn? Here we explore how a few leading business schools are contributing to this fast-changing field…

Leading an industry to greater space travel

Space travel has always something that had been dominated by nation states… until recently. The US government has the largest footprint in space, with over 5000 people, satellites and objects orbiting the planet. They are closely followed by their Russian, Chinese, British and Japanese counterparts, as well as other nation states, albeit to a much smaller extent.

Today countries and their governments are not the only ones blasting off to the stars, as more companies (and billionaires) develop their own space branches. Boeing, Blue Origin (owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos), SpaceX (the brainchild of Tesla owner Elon Musk), and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic all now have the capability to launch their own tech into the Earth’s orbit, and even take passengers up for wildly expensive space tourist trips. Just recently SpaceX agreed to transport some of NASA’s astronauts and their tech to the International Space Station for them, in a move akin to a space-age Uber.

But regardless of their growing galactic capabilities, such companies remain regulated by their home countries. SpaceX, for example, possibly the largest of the private-sector companies in space, has to follow the laws and regulations of the USA where it is based. The US really is the industry leader, in terms of both public investment and private enterprise. But much attention now being paid to how other countries might nab the top spot…

Research by Professors Molly Silk and Kieron Flanagan at Alliance Manchester Business School underlines the potential opportunities to be gained by the UK’s space agency, presented by China’s growing presence in the space race. But the points outlined highlight key answers to the question of what makes an industry leader?

  • For one, Professors Silk and Flanagan emphasise the importance of collaboration. Two aspects are important here, policy and strategy. Neither one is monopolised by a single party, whether the experts behind the equipment or the raw resources needed to build the hardware. As such, an industry leader (whether in space or not) is one which has a wide range of experts to pull from, and with a clear and secure supply chain to its vital resources. SpaceX and NASA, for example, employ and work with individuals and agencies from across the world, rather than remaining isolated.
  • Also noted in the research is the importance of adaptable regulations. Innovation is central to greater space exploration, and as is typical of government nowadays – it just can’t keep up with the tech. The US has been so successful in the number of its private organisations which have made headway in space because, other than having huge amounts of space and resources, its industries have always been less regulated than elsewhere. In reference to the UK, Silk and Flanagan highlight regulations must be “realistic, forward-looking and remain adaptable to changing circumstances.”
  • Finally, to become an industry leader, there has to be significant investment in cyber security. Satellites are now part of our vital infrastructure, with all of our daily lives relying upon connections to the internet to some degree. Even the prospect of operating without phones or GPS would bring much of global business to a halt. The research emphasises that cyber-attacks on hardware orbiting the earth will become a reality of confrontation, and as such leaders in the industry not only have to be forward thinking, but aware of the dangers their current tech might face.

Industry leaders can thus be summarised as well-resourced, flexible, collaborative and secure. But being at the forefront of any industry requires one more thing: a strong team.

Management lessons from the stars

Selecting members of any team can require applicants meeting a strict criteria, but selecting a crew to go to space? Even more so, team members on a spaceflight more often than not have to be experts in a certain field, with significant tests and preparation beforehand. As Franz Viehböck puts it, when managing in space you “will no longer be able to impress your team with your expertise. Instead, you will have to rely on your leadership skills.”

Franz is a former astronaut, or ‘Austro-naut’ being the world’s first from Austria. He is now the CEO of the Bendorf group, meaning he knows better than most which of those key skills needed for leadership in space are also vital down here on earth. In an article written for WU Executive Academy, an institution to which he routinely sends his staff to boost their skills through Executive Education programmes, Franz highlights the key traits for leading a team of astronauts. His insights can be categorised into three main lessons:  

  • First, and possibly foremost, you have to be prepared. When training to be an astronaut, Franz had to do everything from learning Russian to conditioning himself to cope in extreme cold temperatures in order to prepare himself. Likewise, when leading a team, you cannot be unprepared or risk your leadership being seen as insecure. Similarly, leaders must be prepared to respond to mistakes in the most productive way. Crucially Franz highlights that, in space every fault and error must be treated constructively. It’s not a matter of embarrassment or shame, we already know what an overconfident CEO can do, but it could be life or death – so errors must be acknowledged without judgement and with solutions. When you’re up in space you have to be resourceful and learn at every turn, to prevent it occurring going forward. Back on earth, leadership mistakes may not always be so detrimental but they are nonetheless opportunities to learn.
  • Continuing, teams of astronauts are, if anything, one thing: diverse. Different skills, different backgrounds and different ways of thinking. Once more, this absolutely has to be the case as there are only so many people that can be brought up in a shuttle craft, and so those who are have to be carefully selected to fit several roles. But Franz highlights this as equally important in any form of leadership, as a successful team is one where “every single one of your employees should be better than you at their respective field”. In such a globalised world, good team management is a cross-cultural experience and leaders “have to be open-minded and overcome language barriers…. Looking down to Earth was an astonishing experience, all those artificial borders disappear, and what is left is the whole.”
  • Finally, a strong leader has to be comfortable working under pressure. It’s no surprise that astronauts can be placed under immense stress, in the most dangerous of conditions. Failure to act in these moments is just simply not an option; there’s no chance to take a break and recalibrate, as stressful moments require answers. Astronauts are trained to confront their stress before heading to space, and Franz emphasises that managers should do the same. Stressful situations do not require rash decisions, however, and often a good leader will lean on their team in difficult situations, whether in space or on earth. Franz highlights that response to stress may differ according to the situation; “If lightning flashes and keeps hitting the ship… this is probably not the right time to talk about values”. When faced with a stressful and dissect moment, assess the situation, and utilise the strengths of your team.

As innovation goes, perhaps no industry sees more change and acceleration than the space sector. And how it is lead defines its growth as a whole, as well as provides new insights into leadership and management here back down on earth.

The intensity of the realities and surviving (and thriving) in space requires the best of the best – whether from tech, resources, team members or, of course, leaders. Not every team on Earth may be as well-resourced as those in space, but there are transferable lessons that every form of management could learn from.

Every team needs a bit of space leadership in their management. And, if you can’t hire a rocket scientist, we’ve seen that you can learn from one – whether an astronaut or an “Austro-naut”.

Leave a Reply