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Executive Leadership:  Rockets To Creative Environments- Executive Leadership Articles

Executive Leadership: Rockets To Creative Environments

Executive Leadership Articles

Executive Leadership: Rockets To Creative Environments

On Monday evening in Florida, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a rocket into low Earth orbit, deploying 11 commercial satellites. SpaceX has stated that its long-term mission is an affordable colonization of Mars, and depositing these telecommunications satellites is a means toward paying for the development of the technology that can make Mars happen. Yet its significance, for SpaceX and possibly for us all, reaches beyond revenue, because nine minutes after the Falcon 9 left the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, it did something considered impossible only a few years ago: it returned to earth from space, landing vertically on the ground just a short distance away.

It’s a big deal, because in humankind’s very expensive exploration of space, the vehicle employed in taking things there has always been a one-use proposition. The Space Shuttle’s orbiter famously returned to Earth for multiple reuses, as did its rocket boosters, but the external tank, that enormous structure the orbiter and boosters were attached to, was always discarded. Even the boosters, after their violent splashdowns, had to be recovered, transported, and repaired extensively before they could be used again. The Falcon 9, however, after depositing its second-stage component into orbit, did a half-flip while continuing its arc-shaped trajectory, so that on its way down, it was oriented with its thrusters down, touching ground apparently undamaged, so that it can be reused in future missions.

SpaceX’s founder-CEO-CTO, Elon Musk, also founded PayPal and Tesla Motors, among other ventures, and is viewed by many as an innovator, a visionary, and something of a rebel, addressing problems by taking control of problems thought too large, too mired in politics, or too expensive. Bypassing speedbumps that are extraneous to the flow of progress, he has moved science forward, simply by having very few people to answer to. His relative independence affords him the freedom to think creatively, and then to put his creativity into action without the encumbrances of fear. Failure is a setback, of course, but in many environments, failure is an end, a proposition that keeps people and organizations from taking risks. In the right setting, failure is simply part of the process, as illustrated by the success of Falcon 9 after a failed landing (on a drone ship at sea) only six months ago.

The big-picture mission of SpaceX is the colonization of Mars, a task so enormous that it’s almost mind-blowing. Many realities make such a project impossible, the great financial cost chief among them, but Monday’s launch proved one practical and one idealistic concept. Practically, the expense of space travel can be decreased by reusing launchers, something recently considered impossible. Idealistically, nothing is truly impossible if you have the right people, and if you support them with the right environments and attitudes.

Few of us have Elon Musk’s means at our disposals, so there would seem to be limits to this kind of thinking. Yet SpaceX’s problem of travel to Mars is largely a financial one, and it is on its way to solving it. It’s the same problem of means, only on (probably!) a much larger scale. What impossibilities exist in your world, and what might you do to break through them, given a few creative people and a safe environment in which they could take a few cracks at them? How many times in meetings have you responded to a participant’s contribution with, “That’s a great idea, but…?”

“If nothing else,” Musk said in an interview, “we are committed to failing in a new way.” As we suggested in our article on working with creative people, you will get the most out of your people if you assure them of the freedom to fail. Every great idea is built on ideas that didn’t work, and a healthy approach to failure is a nurturing environment for the best, most creative thought.


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