Former astronaut Dr. Kathryn Sullivan became the acting under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in February 2013, overseeing an agency whose products and services affect more than one-third of America's gross domestic product. Sullivan spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
What leadership lessons did you learn during your 15-year tenure serving as an astronaut?
As an astronaut, you have visibility, authority and influence, but very little if any classical, formal controls in terms of managing or leading. In my 15 years at NASA, I learned a tremendous amount by watching different leaders, and I saw different approaches to talent development and acquisition. I tended to respect most and respond best to the leaders who wore their rank lightly.
There was no doubt who the commander was and the authoritative stature that that individual's voice had, but they reciprocated to a talented team with a style that reflected recognition and appreciation of those talents. I think this style signals that passion, commitment and talent are recognized and welcomed, but you are also expected to continually develop and improve.
How has your experience previously serving in other positions within NOAA influenced your leadership style and decision-making as acting administrator?
Now that I'm in the lead seat, I understand more clearly the dynamics and importance of stakeholder engagement and the degree to which, in an agency like NOAA, there are many entities that feel they fully share the agency's passion and purpose and have an expectation of being accorded some kind of participation in the decision-making. The day I took the helm as acting administrator, I had our folks pull together a list of our most valued stakeholders, and I penned a short, handwritten note to each introducing myself, commenting how honored I was to be tapped as acting, and assuring them that I knew of our partnership and their concerns.
I got back emails and personal notes appreciating the fact that a NOAA administrator, acting or not, would reach out - not driven by an issue or a need - just to say 'I'm here. I know you're there. It matters to me that we're connected and that you know I care about that connection.'