Learning About Leadership

Disclaimer:  Some folks are of the opinion that I don’t have very good leadership skills; I expect they will comment on this blog in numbers and you should listen to them.  After all, truth is where you find it, to quote St. Augustine.  But along the way I have been asked to do increasingly difficult things in increasingly larger organizations, so there may be something of benefit that I can pass along to you.

The US government spent a lot of the taxpayer’s money to send me to school to learn about leadership.  Over the years, I attended classes including several week-long intensive sessions at remote locations, and several extended part-time, classes of a few hours every week for several weeks at the home business site.  Along the way there have been innumerable talks, presentations, and seminars on leadership.  If that was not enough, I have a whole shelf of leadership and management books which my senior supervisors have given me to read.

Some of these books and classes have been good, especially the basic ones that I got when first promoted to supervision.  At that time, we had small children in my household and I marveled that many of the “leadership” techniques were almost identical with good childrearing methods!   And vice versa I must add.  Much that I learned in those early leadership classes really was more useful to me raising children than running an organization.  Sadly, many of the later classes in leadership were much less useful; good for networking maybe, but not to improve leadership skills.

The management tomes that collect dust on my bookshelf are useful: they impress visitors.  Most are full of baloney and are hardly useful in the type of organizations I found myself in.

There is one real value in reading books on leadership – they tell you a lot about the person who gave the book to you.  That is valuable knowledge when dealing with superiors. There is a booming business in books on the subject of leadership and I have been tempted to write one myself – just to see if writing books can be profitable.

Recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about leadership skills and how to acquire them.  And I have come to the conclusion that the place where I learned the most about leadership is the Boy Scouts.

OK, you are thinking, we are really finding out something about Wayne.

Let me clarify, I am not talking about skills learned long ago when I was a Boy Scout.  Rather, about skills I learned more recently when I was a Boy Scout leader.  My son spent more than a decade in scouts, and my daughter even spent several years in the Boy Scout’s co-ed Venture program.  All those years, I was a volunteer leader.  That is where I learned the most about leadership.

I learned almost as much volunteering with the schools and working on committees at church.  If you can organize, motivate, corral, and otherwise get a group of volunteers to accomplish something, then, in my experience, you have learned some real leadership skills.  In a job situation a supervisor has all kinds of tools to work with – bonuses, and disciplinary actions, awards, promotions, and even the threat of firing (and yes, I have seen even civil servants fired).  In a volunteer organization you have none of these.  But, as I found out thorough painful experience, none of those workplace tools really motivates folks as much as the techniques I learned in volunteer organizations.

In scouts, we adults taught a course entitled “junior leadership training”.  I learned a lot more teaching that course and watching the results than I did in any of those pricy training classes the government sent me to.

So let me enumerate some lessons that may be useful to you in leadership:

1.      You don’t have all the answers.  In the JLT class they taught about the “big boss” style of leadership where one guy is so much smarter than everybody else that he is the natural leader and everybody follows him unconditionally and the results are always successful.  This happens only in Hollywood movies.  Nobody has all the answers; nobody can see the whole picture.  In real world organizations, a smart leader listens to everybody and learns from everybody and decisions are really made by group consensus.  Yep, that’s been my experience.  A real leader recognizes when somebody else’s idea is better than his and is flexible enough to embrace that better idea and set the organization in motion to do things in a way that he did not originally plan.  The military may work differently but I have seen a lot of senior rank retired military guys fail basic civilian leadership because they didn’t follow this rule.


2.       A leader really and truly has to care about his people, their families, their non-work situation, their whole lives.  This cannot be a sham for manipulation purposes because folks will quickly find that out.  If you don’t have an earnest sense of caring for the wholeness of people that work with you, you will never be a real leader.


3.      A leader has to have a vision and has to be able to communicate it so that others can see the vision too.  This doesn’t have to be a unique vision, but a leader without a vision of what the group/organization should achieve is not a leader but a manager who is filling bureaucratic squares.


4.      A leader has to admit when he is wrong.  We are all on the “naughty list” some time.  People will respect you when you own up to your shortcomings and will not be fooled for a minute when you cover up. Enough said.


5.      Sometimes a leader has to keep his doubts private.  Everybody gets discouraged sometimes.  A great aphorism states that every successful project looks like a failure half way through.  If the course is good and the plan is good, sometimes the leader must project positivism to keep the team going when thing are not going well.  If the leader gives voice to doubts and despair, expect the team to quit.


I would sum this all up in saying that a real leader must demonstrate to his people that he is worthy of being followed.  You earn the right to be a leader.  A position can be awarded, authority can be conferred, but leadership is earned.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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18 Responses to Learning About Leadership

  1. Chris Muncy says:

    When leaders can recognize these 5 points in themselves, they will truly be successful. But even for the rank and file, there is no reason why you shouldn’t also evaluate yourself against this list and see where you stand.

    Good read.

  2. rikerjoe says:

    I liken the reading of leadership books to panning for gold. There is a lot of stuff to wade through before finding those small yet valuable nuggets that make it worth the effort. Even with all these nuggets, they are valueless left sitting around. I view it as my responsibility to put those nuggets I find together into my own view of leadership that works in whatever circumstances I face, recognizing that the circumstances will change with time. I agree whole heartedly that being a dad to two young daughters is one of the best tests of leadership that I might ever face – the girls certainly try to push me around more than my colleagues!

    Thank you for sharing your views, Wayne.

  3. Wayne – I’ve always believed that the mark of a good leader is when his team wants to work for him/her again. I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of good leaders (you, included) from which I’ve developed my leadership style over the years.

    I’ve taken all the good parts from every successful (and some not-so-successful) leaders and tried to put them into my own situations. I’ve failed from time to time, but continue to try to be that leader my teams want to work with again…

    … and yes, I would *absolutely* work for you again. You, sir, were a great leader.

  4. Hank Jarrett says:

    I rarely read ANY blogs, but I ALWAYS read yours. You represent the very best kind of leadership. A leadership that both results in success and inspires others to emulate you.
    I have stolen your final quote in your blog (with attribution) and will be framing it for my wall.

    “A real leader must demonstrate to his people that he is worthy of being followed. You earn the right to be a leader. A position can be awarded, authority can be conferred, but leadership is earned.”

    Wayne Hale

    I only wish I could have worked directly for you. You ARE missed.

    Hank Jarrett

  5. Wayne,
    It’s sad you had to throw in that disclaimer at the start of the article–I thought what you had to say about leadership was great. Interestingly enough, most of the “leadership” experience I’ve had in my short time in the professional world also came from Scouts and Church volunteer positions.

    Well said.


  6. Funny how the truth will out, Wayne. People are very good at recognizing sincerity about their well-being, no matter how hard the wool is pulled, and they will follow when they find it.

    Interesting parallel — did not have an opportunity for scouting much as an AF brat overseas, and my father’s task involved the night shift (during the Cold War in Germany) so he was not able to join in. My leadership skills, such as they were (altho I ended up the only ‘one-man band — indie video producer/artist — in my community to Chair a 2000 member Chamber of Commerce, the ‘Cultural Board’, and become the founding chair of our then-fledgling leadership alumni group — because I was asked to, not because I sought the positions) were learned in the Civil Air Patrol while in High School. We had classes where we learned the fallacy of the familiar, and that rank had its privileges, but it also had its responsibilities. But as you point out, as our Squadron’s Comm Officer, I actually had leadership experience (no satellites back then, we went out into the boonies searching for downed planes) in real world situations.

    Good to learn leadership before the world turns us more towards the cynical side, perhaps? When the golden rule is still fresh in our minds? Thanks for the insights! I find them to be spot on, at least in my experience.

  7. Bob Hopkins says:

    Very well said. I have followed your writing for years, and often shared your wisdom with my engineering students. I fully agree with all your points especially #2. Also, much of my leadership skills (for what they are) have been honed by raising 4 children, all in Scouts, I was fortunate enough to share their experience as a volunteer. With almost 40 years of teaching behind me and some still in front me, I’m still excited about our future. Happy New Year.

  8. A very interesting read with some good tips for future learning. However, as always when I see the ideal something-or-other described, I marvel at how off-the-mark the real thing tends to be. Your #1 and #4, e.g., are closely related to one of my own most common complaints about leaders: Far too many fail to recognize smarter people and better ideas, admit errors, or so on, but seem to walk in their own personal reality where they are the infallible Hollywood hero. Indeed, since I work mostly with software development, the common recruitment and promotion patterns quite often bring about situations where (non-technical) team leads, managers, PMs, whatnot, are sub-average in terms of intelligence, education, and insight when compared to the team—something which is, regrettably, rarely reflected by a corresponding humility.

  9. Chris says:

    Thank you for this gold nugget of knowledge. As usual you summed perfectly up what takes others hours to explain. Others longer still, writing rambling books that are easily put down and ‘lost’. Keeping it simple and to the point, for me anyway, keeps it in my mind. I like that your ‘lesson for today’ is not mixed up with 10,000 other vaguely related items that are not part of the point you offer. I will forward your words to others that REALLY need to read them. Maybe it will ease their burden. It will certainly ease my mind as their burden often becomes mine:) You have a tremendous New Year. And thanks again!

  10. nooneofconsequence says:

    Leadership can often depend on context and role as well – it has more often been the case that one works well in certain cases yet when promoted/transfered doesn’t in the following position. The exceptions to the rule are there for the few that “work every case” – world would be better if there were. I think our culture is antagonistic to encouraging the emergence of genuine leaders, because of a desire to distort leadership to the ends we wish for it.

    Equally as important as teaching leadership is teaching how to be a good follower – e.g. how to appreciate the attributes of effective leadership. This is as neglected if not more – because of the simplistic notions we keep of both roles/scope. We lost a lot in the deconstruction that (un)creatively destroyed, and still more along the incomplete odyssey of technology disruption (including the Internet).

    We’re slowly negotiating the transition through this, but its indeterminacy is greatly aggravating attempts to dig ourselves out. Simplistic leader/follower approach isn’t up to the task of coping with a too complex world, and when we dumb things down forcing programs/projects, we destroy/distort the attempted creation in the process. This leads to the misunderstandings around leadership, and erodes the needed confidence.

    Two lessons I’ve learned about the best leaders – they’re acute listeners (hear the relevant “pin drop” in the cacophony) and concise communicators (crisp clarity to the point of being unreadable). When these are appreciated by their followers, effectiveness begins the construction process that refines all the rest. Not to be confused with opportunism and sloganeering.

    Oh, and one of hallmarks of a leader in their context – trophies, in the form of recognized successes by others. – leaders live for these more than anything else. I especially enjoy your insight in recognizing success in accomplishments you’ve seen when you speak of them. Never tire of hearing of them.

    Think that when we do that, we in some way plant the seeds of more successes that way. Perhaps this is one way where your leadership is constantly made visible to others.

  11. Maura says:

    I always enjoy reading your posts, Wayne, no matter what topic you choose to write about. This one is particularly nicely timed for the “New Year Resolution” season. Thank you.

  12. Dave says:

    Bravo! I have found those maxims very much true as well. I haven’t seen #5 stated so eloquently before and it is truer than ever today. Sometimes you persevere just to demonstrate to your team what must be done even in the most dire of circumstances.

  13. Mike Fossum says:

    Wayne – Great blog! I’m going to use it in the Troop Junior Leader Training I’ll be running in a couple of weekends. Keep up the great work!!

  14. Glen says:

    Thanks for the post and thoughts Wayne. Of particular interest to me was your quote near the beginning: “There is one real value in reading books on leadership – they tell you a lot about the person who gave the book to you.” So true!

    I have read countless books for pleasure (not sure why!) and for study. NOTHING beats sitting down with a leader who is a little further ahead in years and practice and gleaning good information and experience from them.

    As many have already commented, leadership development comes from living life with your eyes wide open…

    Thanks again!

  15. Dave H. says:

    Best of the New Year to you and yours, Wayne.

    I have often wondered how those who are recognized as “leaders” developed their various styles. For instance, Gene Kranz might well be compared with General George Patton, but it can be argued that they both served in the military and thusly would be expected to have similar leadership styles.

    But what about Todd Beamer, the hero of Flight 93? He never served in the armed forces, yet when the situation demanded it, he showed true leadership…although a student of history might argue that Todd subconsciously employed an axiom of Crazy Horse’s: “Today is a good day to die!”

    Perhaps they both had a little Klingon blood in them…?

    True leadership begins with being able to back up your words with actions. There is nothing worse than an unknowledgable leader to promote discord within a team.
    In the movie “Aliens”, remember the groans and comments from the Marines when their leader revealed that he’d never actually performed a combat drop, that all of his “experience” was simulated? All of a sudden, the troops’ shifted their concept of who their true leader was to their “Sarge”, a grizzled veteran whom they knew was knowledgeable.

    Patton was certainly trustworthy because the troops saw what he did. Kranz didn’t sit in with the engineers, he knew what they were capable of and reminded them of it. His faith in them, that failure was not an option, provided the motivation.

    On a more pragmatic level, I used to do construction. Poor leaders found their names all over the Porta-John walls, while good leaders did not.

  16. Guy says:

    Hi Wayne – just stumbled on your new blog. In the 20 years since we worked together I’ve always enjoyed seeing you occasionally on TV or reading your comments in the press – usually in times of stress for NASA. Since I nearly always agree with what you say, I think you’re really smart 😉 and I admire the way you express those thoughts.

    Anecdote 1 – as a Capcom for several flights in the early 80’s, I got to work with a very sharp lead Prop console guy. When he moved up to being Flight Director, I was impressed with his quick adaptation/dedication to being the big picture Flight Director guy on the team and letting the lead Prop console guy on his shift be the lead Prop guy. Wayne something-or-other, as I recall…

    Anecdote 2 – raising a family whilst in the astronaut office in the 80’s, I read a lot of books on being a better father and a better husband. When I returned to the Air Force in ’91, I discovered it was about one year into TQM. (I think NASA may have started using it some shortly after I left.) I figured I’d need to get up to speed on it quickly, and borrowed several books on TQM from one of my fellow Colonels. I discovered that wrt the leadership parts, I already had a bunch of TQM leadership books at home – the ones on being a better father and husband (albeit without all the metrics/statistics).

    “Servant leadership” is the term I like to use. Thanks for modeling it.

  17. Ron says:

    Regarding what Wayne statement: “1. You don’t have all the answers. … A real leader recognizes when somebody else’s idea is better than his and is flexible enough to embrace that better idea and set the organization in motion to do things in a way that he did not originally plan. The military may work differently but I have seen a lot of senior rank retired military guys fail basic civilian leadership because they didn’t follow this rule.”
    May I refer you all to the now recurring Smithsonian documentary, “Gallipoli”, for a case study. It’s a sad, sickening story of a military campaign gone wrong. Couple of observations: one critical battle for the high ground had the Brits throwing not one or two but FOUR waves of soldiers into the fray to take the high ground. On one day, this hill traded hands 7 times. Thousands of lives were lost. In another anecdotal snapshot, the Turkish leader told his soldiers he was not senting them in to fight, he was sending them to DIE. They went anyway. Foolish leadership? Perhaps. Inspirational? No doubt. Watch the documentary and feel free to comment.

  18. Jo Yo says:

    Remember, the concept of leadership and management are two separate but complementary concepts.

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