Leadership Lessons From Outer Space

Beaming in from space via teleconference, International Space Station Commander Terry Virts discusses leadership, technology, and thunderstorms with professors and students at Harvard Business School.
by Carmen Nobel

Asked for leadership advice, Terry Virts thought for a moment, letting his microphone float weightless in front of him before responding.

"You have to adapt your leadership style to the situation you're in," he said.

Nobody knows that better than Virts, who has served as the chief of the F-16 HARM targeting system; chief of the Astronaut Office Robotics Branch; and, currently, the commander of the International Space Station (ISS), where he has lived since November 23, 2014.

“If you have a team like this, you let them produce the ideas…and get out of their way”

Virts is also a 2011 graduate of the General Management Program, an intensive seven-week Executive Education curriculum at Harvard Business School. On April 22, beaming in from space via satellite feed, he spent half an hour addressing a packed audience of professors, students, and one distinguished surprise guest in Spangler Auditorium at HBS.

Hands-off is Virts' usual management style in the space station, he said, considering the pedigrees of the current crew. His colleagues and bunkmates include former ISS commander Scott Kelly; Anton Shkaplerov, former director of operations for the Russian Space Agency; and Samantha Cristoforetti, a captain in the Italian Air Force and the first Italian woman in space. Suffice it to say, it's an experienced group of self-starters.

"If you have a team like this, you let them produce the ideas…and get out of their way," he said, in response to a request for 'advice from space' from Professor Linda Hill. "If you're a Marine lieutenant in command of a bunch of 18-year-olds just out of high school, it's a different approach," he added.

Professor Sunil Gupta interviews International Space Station
Commander Terry Virts in front of a packed auditorium.Photo: Susan Young

Professor Sunil Gupta, who chairs the General Management Program, led the question-and-answer session. Gupta asked whether anything had surprised Virts during his space station stint. Virts recalled the view from the Cupola, the seven-window observatory module on the ISS.

"The central African thunderstorms are amazing," Virts said. "They're so bright that the modules of the space station light up." He repeated the point for emphasis. "The thunderstorms are so bright that they light up the space station from Earth."

An astronaut's career hardly fits the corporate mold. Acknowledging that, Gupta posed a question that seemed to be on a lot of minds, based on the collective audience smiles and nods that followed. "What were you doing in GMP?" Gupta asked.

"To be honest, that was the best commander training that I've had," Virts replied.

Regarding what it's like to work with an internationally diverse team in close quarters, Virts indicated that it's a matter of character and attitude. "The ability to work with other cultures is absolutely mandatory for a mission like this," he said. "You have to be someone who is eager and able to work with people of different cultures."

Gupta also asked Virts for his thoughts on the future of space tourism, which has made headlines of late. For example, the company Space Adventures, Ltd. plans to send opera singer Sarah Brightman to the ISS later this year. So far, space tourists have paid tens of millions of dollars each for such trips (Brightman is reportedly spending a record $52 million) but several companies have announced that cheaper trips are in the offing.

Virts responded like a diplomatic business school student. "If there's a market and these companies are meeting market demand, it's a good thing," he said. "The more space flights we do, the more we'll bring costs down."

Some of the audience questions were less related to leadership than to the fact that most people's experience with outer space is limited to watching Hollywood movies on the subject. In the blockbuster hit drama Gravity, for instance, an American space shuttle is clobbered by space debris. Sharing an inquiry from a current GMP student, Gupta asked Virts whether space debris is an actual threat.

"Debris is an issue," he said, noting that the ISS has been hit by tiny bits of exploded satellites, resulting in dents the size of bb-gun pellets. "The good news is that if it's large, we can maneuver around it, and if it's small, it doesn't really matter. It's the in-between things, like the size of this microphone, which might be a problem. But the good news is that space is a big place and there aren't a lot of things the size of this microphone floating around there."

For effect, he spun the microphone in front of him, weightless. He also made a point of flipping himself upside down a few times during the teleconference, garnering gasps from the audience each time. "This never gets old," he said.

Professor Stefan Thomke, who studies technology development, asked Virts to talk about the technology that excites him most as an astronaut. Virts noted the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a module on the ISS that searches for dark matter and dark energy. "In the long term, it may tell us what the universe is made of," he said. "But the stuff that astounds me the most is the simplest stuff."

Virts then admitted what really wows him: trash bags that the Russians brought on board. Equipped with rubber bands, the bags un-fussily but effectively deal with garbage in a weightless environment. "It sounds silly, but trash in space is a big deal," he said. "Sometimes the best technology is the simplest."

"If [Americans] built it, it would probably be this big complicated thing," he smiled.

As the interview drew to a close, Gupta announced that there was a surprise guest in the auditorium. He handed a microphone to the guest, who, out of Virts' line of vision, began peppering him with guess-who questions: "Was anyone mean in your house?" she said. "Did anyone in your family go to Harvard?"

"Is this Mom?" Virts asked.

It was Mom. Evelyn Coulson, who lives in Maryland, had flown to Boston for the teleconference, accompanied by Virts' stepfather, Jack Coulson.

She asked if Virts had taken the trash out today, and told him that she loved him. He told her he loved her, too.

Virts is due back on Earth next month.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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    • Evelyn Coulson
    • Mother of an Astronaut
    We are proud of you Terry. Harvard was an amazing opportunity for you. We were very happy to surprise you and hope you will visit HBS upon your return to Earth.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This experiment by HBS is very exciting. Professor Sunil Gupta's video conferencing with Terry Virts while the latter was in a space is somewhat unique. Virts makes us proud. He has good leadership lessons for us. We need to read between the lines as many of the messages are noteworthy. However, this article appeared to be an abridged version and, if it is not, I feel more might have been discussed.