Lessons in Leadership from a Career at NASA with Donald G. James
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Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. I’m your host Eric Michrowski and today I’m very excited to have with me for great conversation Donald James. He’s the author of a book, Manners Will Take You Where Brains and Money Won’t. He’s incredibly passionate about careers for students and through his 35 years’ worth of experience at NASA, has seen how much NASA can inspire people around the world. But here we’re going to talk about some really interesting insights from his career at NASA.
And Donald, welcome to the show, first of all. And I’d love for you to tell me a little bit about you and your career with NASA and most importantly, the thoughts that you’ve got around the importance of a manor’s linking it back to the book you recently published.
Thank you so much. I’m very excited to be on your program, and I really appreciate the opportunity. I enjoyed a wonderful career at NASA at 35 years, starting right out of graduate school. Interestingly enough, at the very beginning of my career, I didn’t know that I want to stay with NASA. It wasn’t until the 1986 Challenger tragedy that I found my calling in the agency when it had to do with a personal experience, I had with the post Challenger activities that NASA was doing.
I was invited to participate in some of the educational activities that the backup teacher to Christa McAuliffe, as you know, who perished on challenger Barbara Morgan. She was going around the country speaking to teachers and students, and I got to join her on that journey. And it was during that experience that I realized that NASA could inspire so many people. And it was at that time I said, I’m going to make a career at NASA, that I’m going to do my part to inspire the next generation.
So, I’ve had a wonderful career and delighted to talk to you about any and all of it.
Excellent. Well, you touched on the challenger. Obviously, there was also the Columbia incident. How has it shaped your view of leaderships and blind spots? Has your book really talks about the importance of I would call it grounded leadership, but tell me how those incidents shaped your view of leadership, particularly when it comes to safety?
Yes. So, in my definition of manners, I take a very broad view of it. I first want to say that, yes, I think it’s important to develop common courtesies, you know, please and thank you staff and things of that nature. But I view manners much more broadly and deeper than that. I view it as a way we show up in the world, our sense of awareness, how we engage people. And as a leader, I found that it was critically important, particularly when it came to safety matters, to pay attention, to pay attention very closely, because sometimes you can see problems that are right there in the plane view and a lot of it from one of our former astronauts, Jim Weatherby, who showed charts that they were presented earlier after Challenger.
And he showed how if you actually look at certain parts of those charts, you can see red flags that some of the engineers were sharing but didn’t come out right and see it. So, you have to develop a heightened sense of awareness about that.
I think that’s a phenomenal point and so, so critical when it comes to leadership, but most importantly on the safety leadership side, is creating that, as some people call it, psychological safety, the environment where people are comfortable speaking up, but also that you’re aware of some of those potential blind spots. One of the things that really impressed me when we talked initially, it was a lot of your insights around how you can reduce those blind spots, some very tangible ideas.
You mentioned some FBI body language training. I’d love to hear some examples that you’ve got in terms of tactics that have worked with you and your career.
Yeah, so I’ve learned to develop and cultivate a sense of awareness around, for example, body language. We know from research that communication is not just verbal, it’s also our body. And you might be in a situation where you’re talking to somebody about a particular issue and you can tell by how they’re carrying themselves, the degree to which, for example, they’re very concerned about an issue and it could make a life-or-death difference. I had a specific example where a colleague was sharing with me a concern about another colleague who actually had a drinking problem.
And this particular colleague was in a situation where he was around students and also around equipment, equipment that could be dangerous. And I could tell by how she was carrying herself that she was really, really concerned about it. But after speaking, she was being a little bit more measured, probably because she was, you know, dancing on some very sensitive things here. And so that’s the kind of thing, as just one specific example of truly trying to pay attention to the whole range of communications that you get for blind spots.
I’ve learned to try to reward people who point out blind spots that I may have. That seems like a very simple thing. But you find that your people may not want to bring things to your attention because they feel that, you know, as the saying goes, they’re going to the messengers are going to be shot, so to speak. Whereas in my experience, I tried to reward them sometimes publicly by saying sometimes by mentioning their names or not.
You know, I really appreciated that so-and-so presented to my attention that I didn’t understand and appreciate and thank them. Then the staff knows that you value that and they’re quite likely to bring things to your attention that they might not otherwise do.
I think that’s an incredibly important point. I wish more leaders did that because it’s really about demonstrating, setting the stage recognition, incredibly powerful vehicle for that in terms of how you get people to understand that it’s safe to challenge, to raise issues, to see opportunities or look at things differently.
That’s right. That’s right. And NASA, we developed after Challenger a whole separate structure, engineering and safety structure that ran parallel to the program management so that the issues of safety could be brought up a separate chain of command and the issues involved in the program management. And this allowed people to raise issues to a level where somebody can question or stop something that wasn’t necessarily driven by concerns of budget and schedule. And you know very well that budget and schedule is what often drives us to make poor decisions or to operate with blind spots, because what we’re rewarded for is meeting a schedule or making budget.
We’re not necessarily rewarded for avoiding a mistake because it’s awfully hard to know when you’ve actually done that. And yet when you do make a mistake and it’s costly, then it can actually be deadly and people lose their lives and their jobs.
And I think it’s a point that’s incredibly important, a lot of the it’s still the early stages, but a lot of the investigation of what happened behind the 737, Max. And the recent episode speaks to two similar themes. It was about meeting a budget and a meeting, most importantly, a timeline, because it was huge pressure to make sure they would be beat Airbus in launch of a specific upgrade to the aircraft. And that’s where certain things maybe didn’t surface.
That’s right. And I’m particularly sensitive to that because my brother, who’s also my collaborator, is a 737 captain. In fact, he’s flown the 737, Max. So, when this came to light, of course, you know, I peppered him about questions, many of which either couldn’t answer, didn’t know, or you got tired of answering. But for me, it brought home very deeply that a problem that could have been caused by who knows what and where it could have ended up costing somebody that I love very dearly his life.
And fortunately, you know, there were only two catastrophic accidents and now they’re just in the process of retraining their pilots on the new systems, on the max. And so, I have faith that, you know, they’ll get it right. But these problems have deep roots, and it’s important for leaders to have, you know, an imagination as to how problems can actually come about like this or that. You don’t intend doing that. But obviously, a good place to start is looking at pressures on budget and schedule.
And you know that that was a lot of issues with NASA as well.
And when we spoke before, you had a very inspiring quote that had shaped a lot of your thinking around this, and it had to do with essentially when somebody says as a problem, to what degree do I trust that problem? And can you share maybe a little bit about that that quote and some of the thinking behind it?
Well, I’m trying to remember this specific one. Maybe you can help me out here, because I don’t want to, I don’t want to go off on a tangent here. But I do know that, you know, there’s times when if you’re involved in an operation or a system, particularly a complex system, an engineering system, and you’re aware that there is a variable that’s present that probably wasn’t present before. So, if you take the example of Challenger, the variable that was present that really wasn’t present before was the very cold temperatures on launch day.
And so, there was concern about the impact on the system, particularly the O rings that ultimately failed. And so, what I what I took away from that was that if you are aware that there is some type of variable in the mix and you’re had a consequential decision, it behooves you to kind of pay attention and ask, how do I know this is going to going to work just the same? So, you think about the 737, Max. And I just want to be clear.
I am not an expert on that aircraft or systems or the accident or the and neither am I. But I I would I would start with the idea that what’s new is that they had developed some type of a safety system in the plane. And the way they approach the training of that, they felt that it was a simple software thing, that it could it could work just fine and it didn’t work fine. And I’m probably over abusing my knowledge of what actually happened.
But I think the lesson from leaders is and this can be applied in many circumstances, that if you see that something is new in the dynamic, if you do things over and over again and you don’t do something new, even if it’s a software thing, you need to ask yourself, what is the possibility that this can have an unintended consequence and then explore that a little bit and find the naysayers, find the people who are concerned to make sure that you got it right?
Because I’m telling you, when you’re a leader and issues come to your desk, they’re usually not easy. That’s the reason they’re on your desk. President Obama said this. You know, when you when I get a problem, it is a hard problem because of the energy problem. It would have been solved in the Lomi. And that’s just the price you pay as leader. You have to be able to deal with complex and confusing information.
And I think the coach just said that you chaired had to do with somebody in Houston and that the comment had to do that. Sometimes when somebody raises an issue that it may not appear as strong, they may downplay the importance of severity of it. And part of it is to read between the lines.
That’s right. And I’m like, yeah, I’m not remembering this specific example, but the point is, is very well taken. It’s important to triangulate the information you get, you know, and this is hard. For example, if you get an email and you’re not sure if the email is telling you something that you’re not reading, you need to check it out with different, different people. And I always did that, particularly with consequential decisions. I would ask different people in the entire organization what they think about things to make sure that I wasn’t missing something.
And sometimes I did miss some things. So, body language is an example where, you know, you’re in a staff meeting. Sometimes I walk into a room for a staff meeting and I started on my agenda. And I can tell in the meeting that something is wrong because people are being very quiet. They’re all in their iPhones. We call it the iPhone. Crouser, you know, they’re just like their heads are buried down there in your table.
Nobody’s looking at anybody. And I can tell that something is not right. And what I learned as a leader is that if I don’t stop right then and there to try to check out what the issue is, I’m probably going to end up with a problem down the road because people aren’t paying attention or we’re not going to be focused on what we need to do. Then most cases in my example, the consequences were more dangerous. We’re talking about flying astronauts.
Blind spots can be deadly. And I know a lot of astronauts and I know when there were some close calls. And you can’t afford to be wrong when you’re in space because it is unforgiving.
Absolutely, in your book, you mention also you have you have a chapter that speaks to what you call a pink suit. I think it would be great if you shared a little bit more about what that idea.
Yes. So Pink Suits is a metaphor. And I talk about wearing a pink suit and how there’s a pretty good chance I’m not going to go to a store and buy a pink suit. Now, with all due respect to, you know, creative people out there that wear all kinds of different colors. This is not you know; this is not a criticism of the attire. It’s meant to be a metaphor. And the point of the metaphor is to be willing to try on an idea or something, even if you don’t want to.
You feel uncomfortable, you feel strange, and you might be embarrassed. Sometimes trying it on gives you an insight that helps you. Let me give you an example. That’s not an example. There is a story that’s well documented that Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, got a great deal of insight into new fonts for Apple in the early days by taking a calligraphy class. And he did it as a fluke. He wasn’t doing engineering any of that kind of nature, but he went on to explain how he appreciated doing something different like that, gave him an appreciation for how he could apply those skills in a different environment.
By the way, just a little fun aside about Steve Jobs, and I like to share with the listeners the reason Steve Jobs got interested in computers is his father took him on a tour at the NASA Ames Research Center where I used to work, and that’s where he saw his first computer and that got him excited. So, if you don’t think you can inspire people by just taking them on a tour or showing them something, think again. You could end up creating the most valuable kind of.
Wow, I didn’t know that story. That’s a that’s a phenomenal story on the on the on the power of the NASA. That’s right.
So, you’ve shared a lot of ideas about increasing how people on your teams get more comfortable speaking up. Do you have any other pearls of wisdom in that regard? Because it’s so, so critical at NASA in that we talked about the 737-max scenario. But in all industries where hazards are present, there’s constantly this theme of I wish I had spoken up or leader saying I wish I had listened.
Yes, it’s fact. You know, NASA is a very technical organization and we’re never going to hire you to be an astronaut because you have good manners. You have to know how to fly the spacecraft. But I can guarantee you, and I know this for a fact, that if you don’t have good manners, you could be stuck on the ground. I know for a fact that there are astronauts who actually went all the way through selection, but somehow mysteriously were never selected to fly.
And I used to think it was only because they weren’t trained for the right mission or any number of cases. Now that I’ve been on the inside, I know there’s one or two cases where the reason that they were not manifested for a flight is that they had something lacking in their manners, skills that the leaders of the organization that puts the crew together decided it wasn’t a good fit. I happen to know that there is one astronaut who did fly and he will never fly again because the crew did not like that person and how they interacted.
And I want to be careful here because I’m not here to out anybody. That’s the point is that manners do matter. But you do have to know how to fly the plane, right? My brother says that, you know, he works as a 737 captain in a very technical field that’s bounded by the laws of physics. But manner set the tone for interactions with the most important resource, and that is his flight crew. And, you know, NASA even did a lot of research on flight crew, crew interactions and provided to the FAA some suggestions about how to change certain protocols.
So, it’s not just the captain is the only one who says this is how we’re going to do it. They’re actually trained now to take in opinions from other people, even dissenting opinions when they’re faced with certain challenges. And this is actually shown to save lives. So that’s my argument, is that manners are a skill set that’s very important to learn. It’s part of a range of skills that are important. It’s just not good enough to be smart if you want to work in a place by NASA.
And I would argue it’s not good enough to be smart to work in a lot of other places. You need to develop these skills. And that’s why I wrote this book, because I wanted to share this with students and early career professionals and I hope there is something inside it that will help them take them, you know, where their brains of money.
What I think is a very important point. They are very familiar with the airline industry. That’s where it started in the safety space. And you’re absolutely correct, the impact of crew resource management, how people can challenge each other, how they speak, the dynamics so, so critical to saving lives. And we’ve seen time and time again where that dynamic was not well balanced, how it cost in several cases, hundreds of people’s lives due to a fatal error.
And what are some of the approaches if when we’ve talked before, you really talked about the importance of those range of skills that are needed to be great leaders, how does one start cultivate that that broader range of skills, not just that the technical skill set?
Well, I suggest that one place to start is and I have a whole chapter on this called Who is on Your Team? It’s Chapter 10 and that’s proactively cultivating a group of people around you that you invite them to really support you around manners and other aspects of you as an individual. And I make a couple of points about this. First of all, I don’t mean team like a sports team where you get together at the same time and you meet when I’m talking about is a set of people from different areas of your life.
And I have a model in the chapter about the different sources that you can find team members. But the key is. What you asked them to do for you, the key is to ask them to please be sincere and honest about what you see, even if you think I don’t want to hear it, which means that you have to be willing to risk your relationship with somebody because they may tell you things that you don’t want to hear. I’ve had a personal example of this that I share in the book that in some circles, in many cases, probably could have gotten my boss fired from what he told me.
And yet I realized after I was upset with what he said to me, I realize he was giving me some wisdom that to this day has helped me greatly. That’s the kind of relationship that I talk about. So, the sources of those relationships are you can be your family members, you could be your friends, it could be your professional networks, it could be professional experts. It could even be your higher power. But it’s important to cultivate those relationships and ask people to mentor you, but not just to be your friend.
You don’t want your friend just to tell you, Eric, you know, you’re great. Don’t worry about anything. You want them to tell you the truth as they see it or to affirm things you think you’re doing right and to call out things when they think you’re doing wrong. And then it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to change in order to do it. So that’s one place you can start as a team. One other quick example in terms of interviewing, because most of us have to interview.
I have a whole chapter on interviewing. And my hypothesis in that chapter is that you’re always interviewing, so just be mindful of that. But I particularly talk about the importance of doing mock interviews and being videotaped, because it’s amazing that when you see yourself on a video, you look you look very different than you look like. It’s sort of like someone showing you a picture of yourself when you’re naked and you’re like, oh, my God, you’re like, that’s horrible.
And yet you look at yourself every day when you get out of the shower. Right. And you don’t think so. It takes an external source to show you a version of you that you don’t see to help you realize maybe I better get in shape or even your body language, how you show up in videos, etc. completely agree. Haven’t done the exercise. As much as I despise the activity, I think it’s a it’s a phenomenal if we’re only important tools.
So, I think these are very good ideas. Thank you. Thank you so much, Donald, for sharing this wisdom, putting a put it together in a book to help young professionals orient themselves from a career, bringing a lot of your learnings from your experience at NASA in terms of how to become a more well-rounded leader. And the book Manners will take your brains and money.
Thank you so much. Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming in and sharing about your experience and your thoughts around you.
Thank you. I appreciate it. It was great.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Donald Gregory James, an executive leader, a manager, a facilitator, a public speaker, a mentor, and author. Donald began his 35-year NASA career as a Presidential Management Intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland in 1982. He transferred to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA in 1984 where he served in a variety of roles of increasing responsibility and complexity, including Public Affairs, Government & Community Relations and Education.
Donald decided to make a career at NASA after the 1986 Challenger tragedy. Asked to support the post-accident speaking tour of back-up Teacher-In-Space Astronaut Barbara Morgan, Donald was so inspired by the overwhelming love and support for America’s space program – and education – that he realized NASA was a special place where he could make a difference. His journey of public service would take him from being an intern to the senior executive service and member of NASA’s senior leadership team.
James served as Ames’ Education Director from 1999 to 2006. In the Fall of 1996, James co-led the record-setting Open House at Ames attracting over a quarter of million visitors in one day. In early 2006, James worked on the Orion crew spacecraft at NASA Johnson Space Center, where he drafted the program’s first project plan. Later that year, James was named Project Manager for NASA’s (successful) bid to host the International Space University’s 2009 Summer Session Program (ISU- SSP), attracting an ISU SSP best 136 students from over 33 nations, involving over 15 corporate and non-profit partners.
In August of 2014, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden selected James to serve as the Agency’s Associate Administrator for Education where he led an enterprise comprised of 75 civil servants, over 250 contractors organized to strengthen NASA and America’s future workforce. Under James’ leadership, NASA learner and educator engagement reached over a million people a year. James retired from NASA on March 31, 2017.
James holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was awarded a three-year graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation to pursue his MA in International Economic Development from the American University in Washington, D.C. James also studied economics and history at Cambridge University, England, and attended Harvard’s Senior Executive Fellows program. He is the recipient of numerous awards and citations for exemplary service.
James was inspired by the places he’s lived overseas, including Ghana, Thailand, Kenya, and Niger. He’s also traveled to Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Spain, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.
His forthcoming book, “Manners Will Take You Where Brains and Money Won’t: Lessons from 35 years at NASA and Momma’s Wisdom” will be released February 2nd. Donald and his wife Tanya live in Pleasanton, California. They have two children, 28 and 25.
For More Information Visit: www.donaldgregoryjames.com