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  • Writer's pictureEugene Ras

Leadership lessons from the Unknown Astronaut

Here’s a question for you, and let’s see if you know the answer without any assistance from Google or Siri. Do you know who Michael Collins is? Through my non-scientific methodology of asking this same question to several people over the last couple of weeks, my guess is that you don’t.

I had responses that ranged from blank stares, to “Yeah, of course! It’s that drummer guy from Genesis!” And for the Irish among you, nope, I am not referring to the Michael Collins you all know.

Alright, here’s another question. Do you know Neil Armstrong? I am pretty sure you got this one right (although I did previously have people answer “…a disgraced cyclist…” or “…the guy who sang What a wonderful world…”). What about Buzz Aldrin? So who is Michael Collins? Well, he is the least-known member of the Apollo 11 mission that landed on the moon.

Why is it that we know two-thirds of the Apollo 11 crew so well, but not the third member? You see while Armstrong and Aldrin were kicking up lunar dust on the surface of the moon, Michael Collins stayed behind in the command module circling the moon for almost a day, completely alone.

The Apollo 11 mission

Without going into too much detail, the Apollo 11 mission was the culmination of years of preparation and meticulous planning. The idea was to get the command module into a lunar orbit, fire the lunar module towards the moon, conduct all the necessary tasks, fire the lunar module back into space towards the command module, and once the lunar team is safe, return back to earth. This would necessitate one member of the three member crew to stay behind in the command module, orbiting the moon, whilst conducting essential system monitoring and communicating with Mission Control. This task fell on the shoulders of Michael Collins.

For close to a day he circled the moon, even becoming the first person to orbit the far side of the moon alone. This resulted in all communication being cut-off between him and Mission Control for close to an hour, truly isolating him from all human contact.

Collins’ Apollo 11 story has fascinated me for years, and I believe it illustrates some of the most important leadership qualities needed, not only for success in your professional, but also personal life.

Lesson 1 – As a leader, be ok with not being in the spotlight

We are prone to believe that the only way to lead is from the front and the only way up is to ensure that the spotlight shines brightly on us at all times. This behaviour has different guises. It may be blatant like a leader taking credit for something he had no part in or it may be subtle like boasting about how well you recruited the new rising star in the company. Whichever way, we as leaders need to know that it is ok to be out of the spotlight and let others shine.

Michael Collins was ok with not being in the spotlight. His role was critical to the success of the moon landing and ensuring that the lunar module returns safely to the command module. This mission would have failed without him, yet he never tried to push this message subsequent to the mission. Can you imagine the emotions he must have felt? Being chosen for the mission but not having the opportunity to take those legendary steps on the moon. If the mission was a success, he would always be the guy who went on the moon landing mission without ever getting moon dust on his boots. If the mission was a failure, he would be the only survivor and in his own words a “marked man”. He knew he had a job to do, and this job was being the guy in the background making sure someone else gets the fame and glory.

Whenever I see a colleague or team member who is ok with being out of the spotlight, but still puts everything on the line to ensure that the project or piece of work is a success, I know there are signs of true leadership. It takes immense self-worth and awareness to play a support role in someone else’s or the team’s success, and these qualities are hugely important in a leadership position. Nothing motivates an individual more than a manager that stands back, provides support, and allows team members to shine.

Lesson 2 – Even when standing alone, continue doing the right things

There is a famous photograph taken by Michael Collins showing the lunar module propelling to the moon with the earth majestically blue in the background. He is literally the only person in the world not captured in that frame. As the command module drifted to the dark side of the moon, Collins’ communication with Earth got cut off resulting in (his words) absolute isolation from any known life. During that time, whilst under tremendous emotional stress, he continued with the job at hand, meticulously executing his duties. He did the right things, even when experiencing complete and utter separation. No one to ask advice, no one to bounce ideas off, no one to delegate to, completely alone.

This is such an important lesson for leaders. I have worked in really stressful situations where plan after plan fails to deliver the desired results. In times like those, where emotional and physical stress takes its toll, leaders need to stand tall and provide direction while being sympathetic to the overall mood. The ancient Persians understood this when they created the precursor to Chess. No matter how many pieces you have standing on the board, when the King falls, the game is over. As a leader, you have the duty to continue doing the right things, thereby not only setting an example, but also creating a sense of calm in turbulent times. You need to do this, even if you are the only one. Good leaders rise above the politics, uncertainty and pressure within an organisation and continue with the job at hand, always driving forward like Michael Collins.

Lesson 3 – Your job as leader is to serve…with humility

Great leaders share many qualities, but probably the most impactful of all these is the willingness to serve others. Servant-leaders lead with an altruistic approach and exhibit qualities such as humility, care, empowerment and service. Michael Collins embodies servant-leadership. He has stated many times that even though he did not have the best seat on the mission, he carried out this role with pride, seeing it as an honour to serve. His primary concern during his time in the command module was the safe return of his colleagues from the lunar surface.

In an interview with BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur, Collins stated that although they were three individuals who carried out the lunar landing mission, more than 400 000 Americans worked on the Apollo project, and these individuals rarely get the credit and appreciation they deserve. He does not see himself as a hero, and refuses to give autographs for precisely this reason, stating that he was indeed just lucky to be chosen for this specific mission.

Michael Collins’ humility is the foundation of servant leadership. It is this kind of humility that earns respect from those whom you work with, and it is an example to all leaders.

Lesson 4 – Play the long game

One would think that all leaders think strategically and subscribe to the concept of holism. Experience has shown me this is not the case. All too often, leaders tend to focus on the short term - the quick wins – instead of having the bigger picture and longer term perspective in view.

Michael Collins played the long game. Throughout his life, Collins got asked how he felt about not having set foot on the moon. He stated although he was well aware that he did not have the best seat, he was thrilled to have the seat he had, and that it actually seemed quite a trivial distinction to walk on the moon given the bigger picture of what was being achieved. This way of thinking is evident not only in his approach to the lunar landing, but also in his personal life.

Collins knew the direction of his life. He was clear on what is important to him and how he wanted to achieve his goals. After the Apollo 11 mission, he left NASA, partially due to his wife having had to put up with his ridiculous career. He felt he achieved what he set out to achieve with the Apollo programme, and subsequently gave up a chance to lead later lunar missions. He had a successful career in the US Department of State and private aerospace, directed the National Air and Space Museum, and also ran his own consultancy firm. His fellow Apollo 11 crew struggled with life after the lunar mission. Whilst Aldrin fought alcoholism, Armstrong became reclusive and both men had failed marriages. Collins on the other hand had a fairly balanced life, outside of the spotlight, having raised three children and still happily married to his wife Patricia until her death in 2014.

Playing the long game is an essential quality of great leaders. Knowing where you are going and how the here-and-now contributes to achieving that goal are key to a balanced professional and personal life.

Lesson 5 – Never take yourself too serious as a leader

In a Guardian article from 2009, Michael Collins describes himself today as moderately busy running, biking, swimming, fishing, painting, cooking, reading, worrying about the stock market and searching for a really good bottle of cabernet for under $10. This description says all you need to know about how Collins just doesn’t take himself too serious.

How often do we see leaders in the workplace that struggle to crack a smile, laugh at themselves or see the lighter side in a tense situation? People are drawn to someone who doesn’t take themselves too serious. This ability does not deter from being a confident and assertive leader, in fact, it emphasises it. It is a shame though that so many leaders see this emotional vulnerability as a weakness, and as such put up a tough and serious front.

I absolutely love Collins’ reply to the following question asked by a journalist:

Q: What were you thinking when your colleagues were out there making cosmic history?

A: I just kept reminding myself that every single component in this spacecraft was provided by the guy who submitted the cheapest tender.

This aptitude made Collins a very likeable person, and most probably contributed to his success. In his book Carrying the Fire, Collins describes himself as lazy (in this group of overachievers at least) frequently ineffectual, detached, nothing special. He clearly wasn’t any of these, however he knew that in some way these were his weaknesses when compared to the other astronauts. Knowing this and managing it well, gave him the confidence and authority to troll himself whilst never losing the respect of those who absolutely admire him.

Striving towards Michael Collins leadership

My guess is that Michael Collins will not see himself as an example of great leadership. He would probably list a number of failures, weaknesses and discrepancies that would disqualify him. However, in my eyes his life embodies true leadership. Now more than ever, business and society as a whole are in need of leaders with a strong sense of self – leaders who are steadfast, humble and inspirational. These qualities are rare, which makes it that much more prudent to observe in someone who achieved the pinnacle of his profession, such as Michael Collins. Hopefully the life of this unknown astronaut serves you well in your leadership journey.

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