Leadership lessons learned from the space program

July 7, 2021
Tom Moriarty says leaders will see results when they provide the push to launch their teams (and not drag them).

Living in central Florida I’m blessed to be witness to fairly regular rocket launches. So obsessed with the space program, on November 1, 1999, the region known as The Space Coast changed the telephone area code to 321—as in 3-2-1-Lift-off!

Even though the Space Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011, we see dozens of launches every year. United Launch Alliance and Space X launches, and soon Blue Origin launches. Launches bring people to and from the International Space Station. These are most stressful because there are living souls on-board. The most frequent launches are satellites and some inter-planetary launches sending probes and vehicles to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids.

Night launches are the best. Once the countdown reaches zero, the horizon gets bright and soon you see the brilliant flame rise into the sky. On clear days and nights you can see the first stages separating and the second stage lighting and powering the spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere. Space X first stage recoveries have the cool factor when they land them on their drone ship.

When a rocket first takes off, it generates thrust to counteract the forces of gravity. Thrust continues and the vehicle accelerates. As the rocket accelerates the vehicle experiences increasing drag force. Drag is a type of friction, which opposes the motion of the vehicle. The magnitude of the drag force is dependent on the vehicle’s velocity, the cross-sectional area of the vehicle, the drag coefficient, and density of the air.

At some point after lift-off, the vehicle reaches a point where its velocity and the density of the atmosphere generate a maximum drag force. That point in the flight path is called Max-Q (maximum dynamic pressure).

Leaders can use the concept of Max-Q to think about how you lead individuals or groups when asking them to change behaviors. Let’s use an example.

Suppose you’re a maintenance manager. You understand the value of proper work management through planning and scheduling, but your team doesn’t buy into the plan. They may think the change is intended to reduce head count. Some may think it reduces their autonomy or that ‘big brother’ will be breathing down their necks. This can be thought of as the force of gravity. As a leader, you need to generate enough thrust to overcome gravity. 

Human Capital

This article is part of our monthly Human Capital column. Read more from Tom Moriarty.

Some leaders will not push hard enough; they don’t generate enough thrust to overcome gravity. In that case the leader won’t have to worry about Max-Q. Those leaders need productive leadership training ASAP.

Some leaders will start out with plenty of thrust to overcome gravity. They get the velocity needed to get the changes off the ground. As the velocity increases, the leader is placing more and more stress on the team. You’re asking them to change their behaviors and to do it in short order. The faster you expect change, and the more drastic the changes, the greater the drag forces that are generated.

If the leader doesn’t push hard enough, velocity will decrease and the change will never achieve the proper orbit. If the leader pushes too hard, the stresses may increase to the breaking point. The vehicle is crushed by the opposing forces. Usually the drag is expressed through passive aggression.

Leaders need to manage the two variables; velocity and atmospheric density. Modulate thrust to have the proper velocity. Be reasonable on how fast you expect people to learn new behaviors and gain proficiency. Push, but not excessively.

Atmospheric density can be managed by having open communication; especially sincerely listening to team members. Early in the change process, include team members by educating them and giving opportunities to help develop the process or procedures. Later, after the changes are put into effect, listen. When the team tells you something isn’t working, listen to them.

Get their ideas on how to make it work and use their ideas.

Go forth and do great things.

This story originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

About the Author: Tom Moriarty
About the Author

Tom Moriarty | P.E., CMRP, President of Alidade MER, Inc.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in asset management, reliability engineering, and leadership improvement. He is a member of SMRP (Florida Chapter Board Member and CED Director), a past Chair of ASME’s Canaveral Florida Section, and author of the book “The Productive Leadership System; Maximizing Organizational Reliability”. He has a BSME, an MBA (organizational development), is a licensed professional engineer (PE) in Florida, and a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP). Contact him at [email protected], (321) 773-3356, or via LinkedIn at

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