NASA Needs People Leadership

Much has been written in the press lately about lack of project leadership at NASA – the interview with Dr. Alan Stern in the Nov. 24 issue [“Resolve and Resignation,” Profile, page 22], for example – and how the Obama transition NASA team is mostly focused on getting detailed information on NASA projects. However, not much has been mentioned lately about how NASA manages and leads its people.

As a NASA engineer for 17-plus years – 10-plus as a first line supervisor – and having benefited from various NASA sponsored management and leadership training programs, I have learned that in order to achieve success in projects one has to have “buy-in” from people. The “buy-in” helps people put their hearts and minds in the work, as opposed to just having bodies show up for work. To get “buy-in” the people have to trust their leadership to do the right thing.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report had identified poor NASA organizational culture as one of the root causes leading up to the
accident. Under former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, some activities were established to address this issue of culture. However, such activities fell by the wayside with the change in NASA leadership. The current NASA leadership undoubtedly has excellent technical credentials, but based on the various news items, such as the abrupt departure of highly qualified people, dissent being raised through unofficial channels, etc., it appears that the NASA senior management severely lacks people leadership skills.

Although NASA is rated among the best places to work in the government based on the results of the Human Capital Survey, administered by the Office of Policy Management, it is disheartening to note the significant discrepancies about how the various centers are rated. Some of the centers have consistently been in the bottom half of the rated organizations, and it is not clear as to what action the NASA senior management has taken to address the leadership deficiencies identified in these surveys.

More recently, NASA completed its own Culture Survey, which not only once again brought up the glaring discrepancies across centers, but also indicated a lack of trust in senior leadership. For instance, in response to questions that provided a one-to-one comparison of leadership behavior of first line supervisors and senior executives, over two-thirds of the responders had positive responses for the first line supervisors, whereas less than half had such a positive perception of the behaviors of senior executives. So it is my humble opinion that it will serve the Obama NASA transition team well to also review the extensive data that is available on the behavior of NASA leadership and what the people of NASA perceive to be the deficiencies in current managerial effectiveness. This information will hopefully help guide them in identifying the next leadership for NASA based not just on technical and project management skills but also on the capability to effectively lead people.

The opinions expressed in this letter do not in any way reflect any official NASA endorsement.

Sanjay Garg

NASA employee