Capt. Mark Kelly's exceptional life inspires groups
Capt. Mark Kelly has led an ordinary life of extraordinary circumstances.
Like everyone, for instance, he has dealt with stressful work environments. Unlike everyone, his workplaces have included a Gulf War battle zone and shuttles in outer space.
Like everyone, he has aspired toward a major career goal. Unlike most, his was to be the first man to walk on Mars.
Like everyone, he has struggled to balance work and home life—as when he led the final mission of space shuttle Endeavour while his wife, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, underwent brain surgery following the horrific shooting in Arizona last year.
The dual nature of Kelly’s experiences makes him one of the most compelling public speakers on the meeting circuit today. His stories are powerful and exceptional. But everything he’s gone through is entirely relatable.
Smart Meetings talked to Kelly about his inspiring life, including what he learned from Stephen Hawking, his dream dinner date with Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, and his time spent teaching groups to focus, lead well and dream big.
I wanted to touch first on your time in the Gulf War as a combat pilot. You’ve talked about being shot at and how intense that work environment was. What did you learn that you’ve been able to apply to future challenges?
Certainly one thing is learning how to be able to focus on a job—what we call in the military or NASA “compartmentalizing”—without being distracted by the things in your personal life. In my case with the final space flight last year, I was rendezvousing with the space station on the same day Gabby was having brain surgery.
The other thing is the ability to work as a team and what that means. It’s certainly true that two people working together can do more than individuals not working as a team.
Then there’s being able to handle things under incredible pressure. A lot of business folks deal with a different kind of pressure every day; in the military, a lot of times it’s the stress that comes from the fact that you could possibly get killed, so you have to learn how to train to do your job, focus and stay calm.
How can one get better at what you call “compartmentalizing?”
We practice flying a lot in simulators under a lot of stress, like the stress of things breaking on the space shuttle—you can practice that. I imagine that somebody who’s in a business environment does the same. Let’s say you’re a trader on Wall Street; there are probably people who train you to work through scenarios. Maybe you don’t do it in a simulator, but you do it in a tabletop environment, and you can judge somebody’s performance. You evaluate people, then you constructively debrief them on how they’ve done.
After a space mission landing
How did you balance your work and home life when they were both so high pressure?
You know, it’s that whole issue of being able to force yourself to ignore what’s going on in your personal life at key moments—not to completely forget about it, but there are certain times you have to trust the people who are there, and in my case those who were there to care for my spouse.
If they plan ahead, I imagine people can do that in a typical workplace as well. When you have an important day of meetings, you can say ahead of time, “Right now I’m going to leave all the stress that I have outside this job behind, and for this period of time I’m going to focus on the task at hand.”
You had plans to go on the shuttle mission long before the attack on your wife. How did you decide to go forward with it under those circumstances?
Well, it was a tough decision. I was spending most of my waking hours at the hospital—it’s a phrase, but literally I was by Gabby’s bedside week after week. I had been commander of the last space flight of Endeavour and I had asked my boss to find a replacement. The problem with that is my crew and I had been training together for two years, and finding another commander to come in last minute to lead the mission added more risk.
I also wanted to fly the flight but it was hard for me to leave, so I think the thing it finally came down to is what Gabby would want me to do. At the time, she couldn’t really articulate an opinion—not only could she not speak, but I’m not so sure she could even comprehend the question at that point in the recovery. So basically I had to go with what I thought she would want me to do, and she’s a big supporter of my career, NASA and space flight. She was the chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, responsible for the NASA budget in the House.
I’m glad I made the decision and I’m also glad things worked out well, because flying the space shuttle is an incredibly risky proposition.
You knew going in that the mission would be dangerous. What role did that play in your decision?
As a family we went through this major public tragedy and I certainly didn’t want to be involved in another one. But my going was in the best interest of my other crew members and of NASA and the country. It wasn’t in those other people’s best interest for us to have a commander jump in there three months before the flight.
You’ve talked about learning patience from your wife. Can you expand on this?
I don’t think I was ever really incredibly impatient, but I talk about an experience we had with [paralyzed British physicist] Stephen Hawking in 2006, when Gabby and I met him in London. She literally gave me a very clear lesson in patience; I was impatient in the presence of Dr. Hawking and she had to show me what it meant to be patient as somebody struggled to speak. So five years later, as Gabby started her therapy, I thought back to that moment. When you think about how Stephen Hawking theorizes about time and space…cue the Twilight Zone music!
Kelly with his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords
You’ve discussed wanting to be the first person to walk on Mars—obviously a very ambitious goal. How did you go about trying to achieve something so lofty?
I spoke to a university the other day and I talked about the value of having very lofty goals because my experience with my incredibly ambitious goal to walk on Mars is, ‘I didn’t get there. It didn’t happen.’ But the steps I took to at least get close resulted in a very positive experience in my life. I got to fly four flights in space, and it was all because I wanted to be the first person to walk on Mars.
So that motivated you?
It motivated me and required me to lay out a plan as to how I was going to get there. I think for anybody, it’s good to have reasonable goals, but it’s also good to have a wild, fantastic goal out there that you work toward. You know, I think for a lot of people they might get there. But I also think for the people who don’t, the journey would be worth the effort. It was for me.
You wrote a book, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, with your wife. What were you hoping to share with readers?
The whole experience of Gabby’s attempted assassination—of other people being killed and her survival and then her recovery and rehab—was such an overwhelming sensory overload on my part, and I think there’s motivational material there for people. It was this experience where I truly felt if I could tell this story well, people would benefit from it. In their own lives, they could look at what Gabby and I went through and they could get some inspiration.
But I also know myself and I knew if I didn’t do it soon, I would forget what happened on that date—I would forget that entire story and how difficult certain aspects were for her and for me. I know my own limitations and that if I had waited a year, I would not have been able to tell this compelling, emotional story.
What types of groups do you like to share your story with? And what are the main points you try to get across?
I’ve been speaking to large trade groups and at conventions, as well as to health-care groups, universities, software companies and vitamin companies.
I think the interesting thing about my message is that it resonates with a lot of people in different ways. There are groups where people have a fascination with the military aspect and flying in combat. Then there’s a certain segment of the population that likes when I talk about the space program and the lessons from that. And then there’s another segment [drawn to] my experience as a primary caregiver during this very public event in our country.
I’ve found that since I ditched the teleprompter early on, I get very positive feedback. Typically, I get some segment of the audience in tears. Those moments are mostly when I talk about the experience I went through with Gabby over the past year. It’s a very positive and uplifting message with lessons about leadership, risk management, preparation, planning and goals, all wrapped up in five different stories that I tell.
What are those stories?
I tell one about being in combat, a couple about being in space and then about Jan. 8, 2011, what my experience was in learning Gabby had been injured. There’s a little bit about selecting what I find important in people to work with, a little bit about two accidents we’ve had with the space shuttle program and what we can do to avoid that kind of poor decision making, and then Gabby’s resignation. There is a little about the power of the human spirit, which I see in her. She is someone who has taught me every day to deny the acceptance of failure.
Can you expand on that more—the power of the human spirit?
To watch somebody up close like Gabby fight so hard to survive—I think everybody has that inside them and they probably don’t even realize it. I’m her biggest fan, but I think that’s inside of everybody, that in these really horrible situations, we can rise to the occasion.
What do you teach about leadership?
My experience as commander of a space shuttle is there are certain things I expect from people who work for me. I first of all want to make sure I get everything out of my folks. I talk about this in my speech—that I don’t tolerate “yes” men or women. I don’t want somebody who’s going to agree with me; I am more than capable of agreeing with myself. I require my crew members to challenge my decisions and to question them. Maybe not always out loud where I can hear them, but I want them to be thinking about whether they would do this differently, and if they would, I want to know about it.
You would think in a high-risk environment that you wouldn’t want a risk taker, but I’d rather have a risk taker. Those are people who are able to make a decision quicker—important in our business, but it could be important in any business. I like people who would rather ask for forgiveness than for permission. In the space environment particularly, it’s very good to have people who can anticipate well.
Kelly with his Endeavor flight crew
Is anticipation similar to preparation?
It’s different. Preparation is practicing something you know you’re going to be doing, while anticipation requires really digging down and thinking, ‘OK. If something really bad is going to happen to this organization that is not obvious, what is it?’
Is that more difficult?
Yes, I think it’s a lot more difficult. But I think it’s important to think outside the box—to think about the unexpected things [that might happen].
Have you had any particularly interesting experiences as a speaker?
I spoke at John Glenn’s 50th anniversary of his flight [at Ohio State University in February], and I got to sit between him and Neil Armstrong. Other than my four space flights, that’s number five on my list of cool experiences as an astronaut.
I’ve met them before, actually one other time together, but to sit there at dinner with Neil on one side and John on the other…it was incredible.
What did you guys talk about?
If there was one piece of advice you could offer to people in the business world, what would it be?
Don’t underestimate the power of your people to perform above their ability.
Main image: Photo by Allen Arts