This post originally appeared on td.org in February 2018.
In the early 2000s, NASA launched two robotic geologists toward Mars. Spirit landed in 2003 and Opportunity in 2004. Due to extraordinary engineering and design, both rovers outlived their original 90-day mission plan by over a decade. In fact, Opportunity is still operating 14 years later. At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with leadership. The truth is that ultimately, capable leadership, teamwork, excellent logistical planning, and creative problem-solving made this mission a brilliant success. Good leadership often has unplanned results that can create an impact far in the future.
From project managers and system engineers to operations personnel and scientists, hundreds of people were involved in getting these two rovers to Mars. Without effective leadership, the project could quite literally have gone off-course. But while it may be rocket science to land on Mars, training your personnel to be leaders doesn’t have to be.
Best Practices of Leadership Training Learned from the Martian Rover
There are numerous pitfalls that can beset leadership training. Opportunity’s movement had to be carefully planned so that the rover could keep its solar panels charged in winter. During the Martian winter in 2011-2012, Opportunity was forced to stay in the same place for nineteen weeks because it was the only spot within driving distance that would be able to keep the solar panels charged. While this was a function of circumstance and not a trap, it might have been tempting to try to push the rover to explore just a little bit more even though it would have been too much for the machine to handle. The message here? You may have to focus on a problem until it’s fixed and not rush to move forward, which can have unintended consequences. With properly set expectations, you’ll reach your goal at the right time and pace.
Reflect on Your Goals
Training your leaders should be a realistic, applicable process. If you create training that focuses on skills irrelevant to the job, your learners won’t be able to perform the responsibilities you want them to. Training should be customized to meet both the learners’ and the business’s needs, which requires you to holistically align your training with your business as a whole. The rover team had a fascinating approach to this. Their goal: Keep the rover moving and continue making discoveries. The method: replica versions of the rover that NASA scientists used to troubleshoot and solve problems that cropped up. While you may not have the budget for detailed props, creating interactivity in your training will immerse your learners in the content and reinforce key concepts and takeaways.
When you hear NASA personnel talk about the project, they are passionate, dedicated, and excited. Their work spans beyond them and out into the solar system, bridging the void between us and our closest celestial neighbors. In short, they are actively engaged with their work. You may not be sending people into space, but your employees still want to feel engaged when they show up to work. First things first: don’t write off employee engagement as a buzzword. It’s something that, when taken seriously, can help create leaders who are willing to go the distance and stick with the team even when the going gets rough.
Good leaders are the rivets that hold a team together. Their approach to problem-solving, conflict, and decision-making can determine the success of a project. Whatever the initial cost, an excellent training program will more than make up for the investment by building trust among individual team members, seizing opportunities for growth and improvement in the workplace, and driving employee engagement and results. So, get into the spirit of leadership and consider what the future can hold for your training program.
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