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Vol. LXIII, No. 17
August 19, 2011
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The Power of Teamwork
Lessons on Leadership from NIH’s Mission into Space

U.S. Air Force Col. Rick Searfoss

U.S. Air Force Col. Rick Searfoss

“While I’m not a doctor, I played one in space,” quipped U.S. Air Force Col. Rick Searfoss, a pilot and engineer who has a unique distinction shared by only a handful of people on Earth—he has flown in space. Searfoss presented “Apogee! Take Your Team to the Top” at the fourth seminar of the 2010-2011 Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series. In a lively presentation, Searfoss used stories and examples from his career as an astronaut to talk about leadership and teamwork.

He began the seminar with the rumbling sound of a shuttle launching into space. The work of NASA and the work of NIH may seem miles apart, but Searfoss said NIH’s mission of seeking knowledge of living organisms runs on a similar path as NASA and its mission of seeking knowledge of air and space.

“Finding out what happens to organisms in space is where these two overlap,” Searfoss said. “And this was the goal of the mission I commanded.”

Searfoss was the leader of a mission—the STS-90 Neurolab flight on the Columbia space shuttle—that NASA carried out in partnership with NIH (see sidebar).

“The Neurolab experience was truly unique among NASA shuttle missions,” he said. It employed thousands of people to get a world-class laboratory up and running and bring seven scientific researchers into space. The project resulted in a book full of peer-reviewed science papers, something no other shuttle mission can claim. From experiences such as the Neurolab mission, Searfoss learned important lessons about leadership.

“As a leader you need to show your excitement,” said Searfoss.

“As a leader you need to show your excitement,” said Searfoss. You must be a “salesperson” of sorts, giving regular reminders to your employees that the work they are doing is valuable and exciting. “This excitement takes you off the launch pad and gets you on your trajectory.”

Photos: Bill Branson

“You are, every single one of you here, a leader,” he said. “You have the opportunity to affect others for good.” His “flight plan” for getting the best out of any team focuses on the “4 Ps”: purpose, program, people and perspective.

In describing purpose, Searfoss said a team must have a “mission that matters” and know that what they are doing is important. For him, service to others is paramount.

But it is not enough to “have a pretty mission statement in a nice little bin,” he added. That is why program is crucial in moving from your vision to the nuts and bolts, the day-to-day of getting the job done. You have to keep your operation running effectively and create ways to make it work even better. A leader must take a long-range view, with an eye on the big picture, even while dealing with the everyday tasks of a job.

The most important P, he said, is people. “At the end of the day, it’s people who make up for the shortcomings of everything else. When something goes wrong, who fixes it? People.” Searfoss says that at all the companies he has worked with over the years, it has always been people who make the difference.

For example, teammates who are passionate about what they do can inspire others. Searfoss shared a story of one project involving computers and cameras. At first, it did not interest a pilot like himself, who was used to dealing with hydraulics and “things that might kill me.”

But then he met the students at ground control working on the project. “The kids were so excited that my attitude completely changed,” Searfoss recalled. He said it was their natural excitement that sold it for him.

“As a leader you need to show your excitement,” said Searfoss. You must be a “salesperson” of sorts, giving regular reminders to your employees that the work they are doing is valuable and exciting. “This excitement takes you off the launch pad and gets you on your trajectory.”

As commander of the Neurolab mission, he acknowledged that every person was crucial. “I wasn’t a researcher or doctor myself, but I thought it was so cool that I was playing a role,” he said. “It’s easy to get absorbed in to-do lists, but we, as leaders, need to remind others of how important their job is.”

His take-away message echoed that statement: “One person can make a difference. You can be part of an enterprise that is bigger than any one person, such as the work here at NIH.” NIHRecord Icon

NIH, NASA Share History of Collaboration

NIH-funded projects have long accompanied astronauts aboard NASA missions into space. They were included in at least 11 Space Shuttle journeys and another 6 expeditions to the International Space Station. These projects have addressed such topics as cell culture studies and single-cell organisms and whole-animal studies.

NASA mission STS-95 in 1998 included 76-year-old U.S. Sen. John Glenn, who underwent pre- and post-flight analyses of balance function, as part of an NIDCD grant.

NIH payloads on NASA missions examined the effects of space flight on rat developmental processes and on the development of cells within chicken embryos. Another experiment studied the role of calcium in the regulation of blood pressure.

Not all of the collaboration took place in space. Joint NIH-NASA activities have also included workshops, ground-based and flight research and a library referencing system.

 


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