Choose to Do the Hard Thing

By Sarah Sain, CAE • August 25, 2016

Twin brothers and NASA astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly.
Twin brothers and NASA astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly.

The sky is not the limit.

NASA astronauts Capts. Mark and Scott Kelly should know. After all, they’ve flown to space and back – quite a few times.

The twin brothers spoke at the ASAE Annual Meeting earlier this month and told their phenomenal stories – from flying Navy combat missions in the Persian Gulf to spending 500 days on the International Space Station to facing personal tragedy – and shared the lessons they’ve learned about leadership, teamwork and taking risks.

The brothers opened their keynote address with a quote by President John F. Kennedy, who during a speech about the country’s space program, said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

By going into space, the Kellys said they were able to accomplish something really hard. But in order to be as successful as they have, they had to set goals, plan, test the status quo and take risks along the way – all skills that translate to the association world.

Twins Scott and Mark Kelly
Twins Scott and Mark Kelly

As boys who grew up during NASA’s Apollo program at a time when “I Dream of Jeannie” was on TV, the brothers did not always want to be astronauts. Both set their sights on space in different ways and both had challenges along the way

Mark recalled his early days in naval flight school – right around the time that “Top Gun” was popular in theaters. “Let me tell you,” he joked, “I am not Maverick.” He said he didn’t always do well, but, more importantly, he didn’t give up. He learned during that time that how good you are is not a good indicator of how good you can be.

Scott had a similar tale of going through the motions in college before being inspired by a book he read about astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He said it was the spark he needed to take a giant leap in what would be a challenging but amazing career.

Here are a few others lessons the Kellys shared from their unique experiences:

Focus on the Things You Can Control

In the summer of 1990, Mark was flying combat missions in the Persian Gulf War when his plane came under attack. He talked about a crewman on his plane who was able to compartmentalize and focus on his duties during the flight in order to get home safely. Scott learned that same lesson when his sister-in-law and Mark’s wife Gabby Giffords was shot in the head in 2011. Scott was on the International Space Station at the time. While he couldn’t be with his family during the tragedy, he was able to complete his mission and take care of his crew. In a time when there are a million distractions during each day, the Kellys said focusing on what you can control is key to accomplishing your goal.

Anything is Possible with Teamwork

Scott said one of the biggest lessons he learned from his years in the space program is that teamwork is the key to success. “Nothing is impossible when we work together,” he said, as evidenced by the International Space Station and the 15 counties that work together on that program. Having the right team around you, though, is part of that equation. Mark said that as a commander on the space shuttle, he selected his crew and made sure to select team members who would question his decisions – the worst thing we can do is surround ourselves with “yes” people, he said. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your team, he added, and know when to be a coach and when to be a dictator.

Attention to Minor Details is Critical

NASA’s philosophy, said the brothers, is to worry about everything so that it can protect its astronauts from any possibility. As Mark explained, the level of risk flying a space shuttle mission is high – about the same as storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day – and NASA takes that risk seriously. With your association, you’re the captain, so it’s your job to look at every minor detail or decision and consider the consequences to your staff and members.

Both brothers said their journey to becoming astronauts and missions to space have given them a unique vantage point and appreciation for our world. It’s also shown them that anything is possible – no matter how hard.

Sarah Sain is a senior content strategy & development manager with Naylor Association Solutions, working exclusively with society of association executive and meeting professional clients. Email her at [email protected] or follow her as @ssain7 on Twitter.