Leading Through the Tears

Here’s a secret…the last thing a female executive who works in a male-dominated field wants to do is cry in public.  So of course, I was mortified when I cried during a speech this week in front of a big crowd at the NASA IT Summit.  I thought I conquered presbyopia with 14-point font, but I didn’t have a plan for my inability to see through my tears.

I almost second guessed writing about this, but in my strategic planning meeting today with the other NASA CIOs, the facilitator played some music – The Baby Elephant Walk.  Oh, the memories we have and the things we try to forget.

I was 7 years old and we had a dance recital.  I was the lead dancer and we danced to the Baby Elephant Walk.  We had the cutest elephant ears that were attached to our heads with headbands.  It only took a few baby elephant hops before they fell on the floor.  I was leading, so mine fell first.  We all started crying, but I kept dancing because everyone had to follow me around the stage.  I remember not being able to see so I decided I better wait and cry later.

My most traumatic episode with tears came at age 16 (when the most traumatic things often happen).  I had to play a solo on my French Horn – a concerto by Mozart.   When I played, I did then what I still do now when I’m nervous … I forget to breathe.  This made my phrasing disastrous.  So, I got upset with myself and started crying.  This was embarrassing, so I just stopped playing and ran off the stage.

The band director told me that I did a good job and need to keep practicing and keep trying.  So, he put me on the program again.  Still forgot to breath.  I started crying again.  But, this time, I played through the tears.   

I end this with a leadership quote from someone who didn’t have any problems remembering to breath – Marian Anderson.

“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.”

My lesson had little to do with crying and more to do with the emotional state it left me in.  After the crying, I exited the stage shields down and defenseless.  A young man from NASA/Glenn Research Center came up to me.  He was in tears.  He thanked me and then asked me for a hug.  I had it to give and I gave it to him.  That hug made crying worth it.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

The Summit

I always loved mountains.  Not that there are many in Washington, DC.  But I do remember learning in Greek mythology of Atlas whose punishment was to hold up the sky from the Atlas Mountains.  As a dreamy elementary school student, I imagined that mountains must be pretty big and strong to hold up the sky.  I couldn’t envision anything so enormous; after all, the biggest mountain I saw as a youngster was Capitol Hill.  I couldn’t even imagine who would want to trouble a mean and angry Titan just to reach the Summit of a mighty mountain.  Then I grew up.  View of the Atlas Mountains by Christoph Hormann - http://earth.imagico.de/views/atlas_large.jpg

“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use.” There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. … We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for. “– George Leigh Mallory, 1922

To obtain the happiness we were destined to experience in life, we must push ourselves to great heights in order to experience real joy.  As leaders, we push our organizations to do the impossible and the difficult so that we can feel delight of knowing that our mission was accomplished.  We want to do the things that no one has done, to set precedence and to plant a flag at the peak of a mountain that says … we made it to the top. 

I was talking to a girlfriend who is going through a bad spell. I tried to explain a feeling that I’m sure mountain climbers must feel.  We must experience pain to experience joy.  To avoid pain is to avoid joy.  Martha Beck in her book Finding Your Own North Star discusses that feeling:

“Anyone who … pushed past physical limits in some athletic event, or struggled to learn difficult but powerful truths understands that suffering can be an integral part of the most profound joy.  In fact, once the suffering has ended, having experienced it seems to magnify the capacity to feel pleasure and delight. “

Frostbite, oxygen deprivation, fatigue, fear, uncertainty, doubt – all of these painful aspects of mountain climbing give birth to the joyful moment when we have arrived at our Summit and returned safely. 

In 1995, David Breashears – the CIO’s mountain climber – led a team to test out the technology capabilities of the then new lightweight IMAX.   The effort took a lot of innovation and engineering effort – including the use of NASA-rated grease that wouldn’t freeze, stiffen up, or shatter.   During the expedition, a tragic storm hit that caused them to suspend their activities to rescue other endangered climbers.  He measured success not by the pictures he took, but by helping his team reach the top, save lives, and return safely.

We all need our summits … places we must climb, heights we must reach.  Furthermore, the purpose of leadership is to help others reach their summit. We must nurture within ourselves and our organizations the courage, confidence, and stamina needed to reach our peak and wrestle the mighty Titans of life.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA


I woke up at 4:12AM not surprised at my typical sleeplessness, but wondering what all the adrenalin was about.  After giving it a few minutes of thought, I decided that I was excited about getting ready to make another trip to NASA’s Stennis Space Center.  I must admit that I always look forward to meeting with people out at NASA’s field Centers – and I must also admit that I did “pre-order” some Sweet Potato French Fries and Seafood Bisque from the Rocketeria.  But, there was more to this sleepless excitement. 

I realized what it was when I remembered having a conversation with someone from Stennis who came up to HQ earlier this year.  Many of the NASA Centers struggled with coping with the news about the future of the Constellation program.  Stennis was no different, I suppose.  So, I asked about the mood and morale at Stennis.  The person I spoke to said that it was surprisingly upbeat.  But, she thought maybe everyone was still celebrating the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory and Mardi Gras.  Somehow, I didn’t think that mood was temporary.  At 4:20AM, I realized I was looking forward to their spirit of resilience. 

Sometimes the “N” part of my INTP Meyers-Briggs archetype feels like a curse.  Especially with my ability to “feel” the echoes of the Katrina devastation as I walk briskly through Louis Armstrong Airport and drive efficiently through the yet-to-be restored sections of the ninth ward.  Other times, the “N” part is a blessing, as I get to feel the spirit of optimism, courage, and resilience from the inhabitants of the Small But Mighty Stennis Space Center. 

Resilience is called out by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as an essential core qualification for executive leaders in the Federal Government.  It is one of the necessary competencies that an executive has for Leading Change.  OPM defines Leading Change as:

“… the ability to bring about strategic change, both within and outside the organization, to meet organizational goals. Inherent to this … is the ability to establish an organizational vision and to implement it in a continuously changing environment.

It includes the competency of resilience which is demonstrated by a leader who:

“Deals effectively with pressure; remains optimistic and persistent, even under adversity. Recovers quickly from setbacks.”

As we move forward to implement goals and objectives of Open Government and innovation, it’s not surprising that the cultural change requires personal and organizational resilience.  Perhaps to be open means to open oneself and one’s organization to criticism and scrutiny.  Yet, we have to recover quickly, correct mistakes, and take our lumps.  To innovate means to walk on landscape that has not been mapped through the richness and legacy of our proven processes and policies.  It means the ability to keep trying when you fail; to take criticism on the chin and stay in the fight.  When failure is an option, resilience means learning and recovering quickly from setbacks and disappointments. 

My trip to Stennis meant more than getting my fix from high-fat, low glycemic index carbohydrates from the Rocketeria.   It meant being reminded by The Mighty that getting their way isn’t as important as knowing which way to go; that clouds have silver linings; and that potential set backs are prospective opportunities.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA