Leadership Lessons Learned from Space


Cady Coleman is a former astronaut, retired Air Force Colonel, and veteran of two Space Shuttle missions and a six-month expedition on the International Space Station (ISS). She joined the Women in Investment Management: Opening Doors conference in Montreal to share her story of being a woman astronaut negotiating NASA’s male culture.

Coleman’s parents modeled success. Her mother raised her to believe that she could become anything, and her father was an explorer who worked in an undersea lab program and lived in some dangerous places. After hearing Sally Ride speak at her college, Coleman set her sights on space.

Coleman earned a bachelor’s degree in science from MIT, later becoming a chemist and earning her doctorate in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts. She pioneered research on materials science, biotechnology, combustion science, and fluid physics. As one of the few women who have gone to space, Coleman said that she feels a responsibility to share her story.

At the conference, Coleman explained that her six months on the International Space Station required her to get work done with a team of people that she did not get to pick. The station has a crew of six — three people arrive in a capsule to work alongside the other three already on the station. Then the three people from the station are rotated out and replaced with three new people from another capsule.

Unsurprisingly, most of those astronauts were men. 

How did Coleman address the challenges of this male-dominated culture? She emphasized the importance of the mission over the individual.  However, she noted that this approach was developed to address the nature of her environment.

Coleman had to deal with astronauts who dismissed her views based on her gender and engineers who said she would be unable to fit into spacesuits made for larger men. She learned how to assert herself, even when she was being ignored. In some cases, she worked around obstacles by having male astronauts pose questions on her behalf. At NASA, Coleman showed up for meetings with a positive attitude even when she was not invited.

The eight-minute trip to space made Coleman feel that she was going someplace so unstoppably fast that she would be unable to return. She told the audience that she would never forget the view of earth from space and that she wants to ensure that everyone remembers we are all the crew of spaceship earth. We all need to learn the best way to sail it together.

During her presentation, Coleman discussed what it was like to work with Colonel Eileen Collins, the first woman in history to command a space shuttle mission. Coleman said that Collins’ collaborative style was noteworthy, marked by listening and seeking feedback before making major decisions.

Different perspectives help us solve problems, and the people with those perspectives need to be present at the table. Coleman advised the audience to look at who is at the table and seek out ideas from those who are different, especially when deciding what to do. Diverse views are important for groups trying to improve their performance; continuing operations as usual will not lead to better results.

Coleman noted that we generally don’t get to choose our colleagues, either in space or at work, and that women and minorities are underutilized in most environments. “You must have a relationship with people with whom you are doing scary things,” she said. In difficult circumstances, you need to understand the other person’s point of view, even when they do not agree with you. Coleman’s advice was to learn what they care about in order to reach them.

Coleman also referenced Hidden Figures, the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. The story’s lead character, Katherine Johnson, was an astonishingly accomplished mathematician who calculated rocket trajectories for NASA. Coleman stated that there was nothing hidden about Johnson, who stood out as an African American woman, and yet people didn’t see her. Women like Johnson have things to share, but they do not know whether it is worth the risk of speaking out. Coleman urged women to push through.

We all have superpowers, according to Coleman, and we must identify them and learn to use them to make sure that our voices get heard. It’s a rallying cry for all the diverse groups on the earth, regardless of their field. 

As someone who was present on the International Space Station, Coleman feels a responsibility to show women and girls that she was there. She preferred to display her hair in videos and photos, making it clear that there was a woman in space, documenting the activities from her time there. 

Coleman wants to inspire other women to reach higher, whether it is through being featured on a stamp in Ireland or by posing for photos with others. When asked to do things now, she said that her strategy is to “say yes, a lot.” Many things tell women and girls that “This is not for you.” Coleman wants her story, image, and presence to say “Yes, you can.”

All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image courtesy of Michael Strathen

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