Impossible Leadership

Have you ever seen anyone perform the impossible?  We’ve all heard stories about the impossible; about superhuman strength during time of duress; about Cinderella stories; and of course, leaders that accomplish the improbable and the impossible.  What can leaders learn from this? How do we harness this magic?

·         In 2006, a Quebec woman wrestled a large polar bear that she saw a coming towards her son and another boy while they played. She tackled the polar bear and fought it while the boys ran for help. While she suffered some wounds, the polar bear ultimately lost the fight when she fought the bear off long enough for someone to shot and kill it. 

·         In 2009, a Kansas man saw a car run over his neighbor’s 6 year old daughter.  Without thinking, he ran over to the girl and pushed the car off the injured girl. 

·         In Tucson, Arizona, a man witnesses an accident where a Chevy Camaro ran over a bicyclist.  He lifted the 3,500 pound car off of the injured cyclist and held it for nearly a minute while the biker was pulled to safety. 


Notwithstanding the extreme examples that are provided above, we can still learn lessons in impossible leadership.  Here are some:


Buster Douglas versus Mike Tyson


Buster Douglas faced a heavyweight fight with champion Mike Tyson.  Everyone presumed this would be a characteristic quick knockout victory for Tyson.  Douglas’ mother had died only 23 days earlier.  Amid his stress and grief, Douglas trained hard and was able to use the advantage of his 12-inch reach.  Douglas stood tall and his jabs landed relentlessly on Tyson causing the champion to back up.  By the 10th round, Douglas knocked Tyson down with a well-placed uppercut to become the new heavyweight champion. 


IBM – Lou Gerstner


Lou Gerstner was Chief Executive Officer for IBM from 1993-2002.  He is credited with doing the impossible task of saving the life the company.  The job was viewed as impossible.  In his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Gerstner made this observation before he made a decision to take the job:


“IBM sales and profits were declining at an alarming rate.  More important, its cash position was getting scary…I was convinced that …the odds were not better than one in five that IBM could be saved and that I should never take the position”


But Gerstner took the position anyway.  He reversed a decision to decentralize the company and create instead the various divisions to operate and manage themselves.  He relentlessly drove a strategy that was obsessed with the customer; encouraged innovation; committed to quality; and delivered performance and value to the customer.  His secret for accomplishing this impossible feat required being focused, being superb at execution, and using the full potential of personal leadership. 


Green Bay Packers – Vince Lombardi


Legendary Coach Vince Lombardi is regarded as one of the best coaches in history.  He became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers after they finished a season with one win and ten losses.  Believing in the importance of physical conditioning, he established a rigorous training camp program.   In his first season, the improved team finished with a 7-5 record.  At the end of his second year, he took the team to the championship and nearly won but saw his only post-season lost to the Philadelphia Eagles.  He went on for the next two seasons to lead Green Bay to NFL Championship. 


The examples above had three things in common:


·         They prepared.

·         They believed.

·         They executed. 


Impossible Leadership requires preparation.  You must study, do background work, perform analysis, and understand the context.  Lombardi was known to have a brutal training camp.  Yet, his players were always in the best condition to execute the game plan he put forward.


You have to believe that what you want to do can be done.  In Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill provides the following verse about the importance of belief:


“If you think you are beaten, you are,

If you think you dare not, you don’t

If you like to win, but you think you can’t,

It is almost certain that you won’t. “


And finally, you must perform some action and obtain a result.  Gerstner believed more in execution than in vision.  He believed that IBM needed to execute well and just skip the vision-thing. 


“So the most important strategic priority for IBM becomes, when you peel it to the core, to execute what it knows – and has known for years.  Execution will lead IBM back to success.”


So, yes, leaders can do the impossible.  But to do so, they must prepare themselves and their organizations; they must believe and create the sense of belief in the organizations they lead; and they must do more than give lip service to all of this.  They must act and produce results. 


Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA


Grateful Leadership

Grateful Leadership

As Thanksgiving approaches, this is the time of year when we reflect on the things that we want to be thankful for. 


The first Thanksgiving is attributed to a commemoration of the first harvest after the Pilgrims arrived in the new world.  Seeking religious freedom, they endured a cross Atlantic journey for which only half of them survived.  They were greeted warmly by Native Americans who taught them the skills that they needed to feed themselves and survive in this strange new world.  After their first corn harvest proved successful in 1621, the Pilgrims had what was believed to be the first Thanksgiving during a celebratory feast. 

They were extremely grateful for where they were and what happened.  Perhaps the magnitude of this gratitude is lost during these more modern times.  Before we consider such feats trivial consider that as we discover new exoplanets maybe a group of modern day pilgrims will survive a trek to one of these brave new worlds and some way … somehow, survive.  Imagine that the friendly inhabitants of this alien planet give us tips and tricks of surviving and we are able to endure through the unearned series of circumstances that follow.   As we reflect on Thanksgiving, I think it’s easy to forget the magnitude of the risk, danger, and loss that the Pilgrims endured as they reflected on the past with gratitude.   


Sometimes gratitude is expressed in relative terms.  In other words, it depends on where you are and where the giver is. 

My sister Loreen often talks about a wedding gift that she got.  It was a scant few dollars.  But, it was from the groom’s aunt who didn’t have much money.  She had only a few dollars, yet, she gave this young couple $5.  The spirit of sacrifice and love in which the gift was given was immeasurable.  We often forget about that and look at things in absolute terms and forget the context in which the gift is given.

I was talking to one of my piano students Lourdes about the meaning of the song, The Little Drummer Boy.  She played it without meaning or feeling.  I had enough and tried to explain to her that this poor little boy gave the best that he had to give – he played his drum.  He played the best he ever played; even the animals thought it was a hoot.  Lourdes got it.  She came back the next week playing that song with new found meaning and emotion.


The author, Wayne Dyer, challenges us to “… Develop an attitude of gratitude for all that manifests into your life. [and] … Be thankful and filled with awe and appreciation, even if what you desire hasn’t arrived yet. Even the darkest days of your life are to be looked on with gratitude.”  He further challenges us in The Power of Intention to “…go on a rampage of appreciation for all you have, all that you are, and all that you observe.”

As leaders, our attitude of gratitude has the supernatural power to inspire and motivate people to do amazing things.  DiAnne Arbour encourages us to “…Pick up the phone or send an email or a note, thanking those who help to keep your flame lighted. Your rewards are deeper relationships, improved morale, increased productivity and higher achievement.”  As I read this, I remembered that last week was a rough week physically for me.  Twice, two different people did small things to help me that were larger in magnitude than it seemed.  They gave me a drink of water.  These small acts were large in magnitude as it helped me battle my cold and endure a parched sore throat and get through some major milestones. 

Yeah, it was a really rough week last week.  My rental car broke down and I missed my flight from L.A. to Washington, DC.  I started to cry.  Then I thought of all the things I was grateful for: that drink of water, a chance to rest, Vanilla Latte, and a fully charged battery for my Blackberry hidden in the bowels of my rolling bag.  Missing my flight wasn’t so bad after all.  I had a few hours to reflect on all the things I was thankful for.  It was a very good day.    

Thank you.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Coping with Reduced Resources: Lessons from a Thief

I remember running into a colleague who I hadn’t seen for a while.  He had taken a new position so I asked him how it was going.  “Terrible”, he said.  I asked why.  He said that if had enough budget and people, he’d be successful.  I thought to myself, “Who wouldn’t?”  Sadly but predictably, my colleague prematurely moved on to another position.   There’s never a time where a manager has all the time, people, and resources they want.  That relentless tension drives us to use the requisite creativity and resourcefulness that results in continuous improvement, learning, and success.

Ironically, an Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter (no acronym needed here, right?) took the opportunity to remind me of a lesson that all managers learn very early in their careers.  I have a glass chess set on my desk and have an ongoing game with Cliff.  We only make on average about one or two moves a day, but over nearly a year, we’ve had a chance to play three games.  In the middle of a game, the Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter snuck in my office and took my knight and Cliff’s rook. 

“Rest assured I have taken great care of [them].  But a game of chess [can] be akin to a project…  And much like a project, you may not have all the resources that you need, but the project must go forward.  How do you complete the project when you are missing critical resources?  How resourceful can you be without the proper resources? “- Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter

NASA offers us an amazing lesson of resourcefulness.  Consider NASA and the Apollo 13 crew whose ingenuity helped to solve a life-threatening problem in orbit using duct tape. 

“There was, of course, a fix; and it came in the form of an ingenious combination of suit hoses, cardboard, plastic stowage bags, and CSM canisters – all held together with a liberal application of gray duct tape. As was usual whenever the Apollo team had to improvise, engineers and astronauts on the ground got busy devising ways around the problem and then checked out the new procedures.”   Eric M. Jones, Apollo 13 Lunar Surface Journal

When facing a situation where we cannot fail, we are able to reach deep and deliver solutions to problems that seem impossible to solve.

Another lesson comes from the Washington Redskins Super Bowl XXII champions.  The team loss key resources during the 1987 NFL season due to a players strike.  The “replacement” Redskins put the team on a trajectory that resulted in a remarkable come back from behind victory against the Denver Broncos. 

“While some clubs chose not to assemble decent rosters of fill-ins, the Redskins carefully put together a solid group. The Redskins went 3-0 with the subs and scrubs and it made a difference, as they won the NFC East with an 11-4 record.” – Larry Weisman, Flashback: Redskins Dominate Denver In Super Bowl XXII

Well, I coped with the loss of my stolen chess pieces.  Furthermore, I ended up winning the game with replacement pieces and a key move made by rookie player and Administrative Officer, Jason:

“I don’t really know how to play well.  This is a knight right? I move it two squares one way and one square another way right? Can I make just one move?  I think it’s good.” – Jason Gillis, Administrative Officer and Future CIO

I close with a thought from the Rookless Cliff:

“The Mystery is solved….. 🙂  The answer … as a project manager you replace resources and move the project forward! Paradigms in thinking must often be changed to achieve new and old goals when resources are reduced, removed, or changed. How we look at resources and incorporate new resources to fit our need [helps us move] the project forward to the end state! All resources are that, they are resources to be used, the question is how flexible are we at using those resources to achieve the project goals.” – Clifton W. Ward III, Service Integration Manager

So, dear Anonymous Sneaky Shoplifter, silly rabbit, tricks are for kids.  No big mystery here.  Coping with reduced resources requires flexibility, ingenuity, and the courage to leverage opportunity. 

Linda Cureton, NASA CIO

P.S. Good luck getting past the Secretaries this time!

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 -

“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

Breakthrough Leadership

I’m almost glad that the month of July is ending.  It’s been a rough month.  I’ve had two pretty bad colds and gained five pounds.  Yet, after a grueling week with the NASA CIOs, it’s clear that we’ve turned a corner as we prepare for our uphill trek. 

Turning corners and climbing hills requires Breakthrough Leadership.  It gives us the ability to have a positive expectation for what has yet to materialize; to recognize results when they become visible; and to be grateful to ourselves and to others for those results.

Expecting results requires positive thinking but Breakthrough Leadership needs that and more.  It means clearing ourselves of the clutter and barriers that block the breakthroughs that we seek.  Furthermore, if we make no plans to actually reach the top of the hill, we will be unprepared for the uphill trek. Similarly, our uphill climb can be made impossible if we are carrying excess baggage that needs to be shed.  We must not only be prepared to reach the top but we must also expect to reach the top.

Acknowledging results requires the ability to recognize and measure outcomes.  We must also look for the specific actions that produced those outcomes.  Too often weak leaders behave like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.  Breakthrough Leaders need know what they did to produce the desired outcomes.  If you successfully navigated through a risky situation, did you apply sound risk mitigation actions or did you just get lucky? Breakthrough Leadership does not rely on luck. 

Finally, and most importantly, breakthrough leadership requires being grateful for results.  This means not only being grateful to those we lead, but being grateful to ourselves as leaders.  Breakthrough Leadership requires a lot of stamina.  The leader that takes the time to focus inward with gratitude gets significant benefits.  First, there is research to substantiate that it is beneficial for your health.  Second, when the Breakthrough Leader expresses gratitude, it results in improvement.  Finally, the gratitude you show yourself will be reflected back in others – and vice versa. 

These are indeed interesting times for NASA IT leadership.  There are tremendous uphill challenges in an environment of uncertainty and doubt.  Yet, I know the NASA CIOs as a leadership team will reach the top of this hill.  So now I’m grateful for July, for my runny nose, and for my low grade fever.  I know why now.  I saw it this month.  I saw it this week.  And I saw its reflection in my mirror this morning.  It looked like Breakthrough Leadership. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

Creating a CIO Team That Rocks!

Last week at NASA Glenn Research Center, we ended the first strategic planning retreat that the NASA CIOs had as a senior leadership team.  We slugged through snarly issues like agency services contracts, ITIL, Enterprise Architecture, Social Media, IT security, disaster recovery management, and budget execution status.  By my own self-imposed performance measures it was good – that means I didn’t cry (though I got close) and I didn’t have a headache (though I had a sore throat from a 15-minute agenda item that turned into 2 hours).  Smiling NASA CIOs at Glenn Research Center June 2010

We didn’t make all the progress we wanted, but we did some great foundational work with a promise to get back together in July to advance some of our efforts.  In one of those close to tears moments, I talked about the leadership challenges of implementing organizational change and the need to start with the man or the woman in the mirror first.  I found myself spitting out some words that I would later eat myself. 

We invested about 2 hours in a team building exercise that ended up being a profound learning opportunity for all of us.  The team learning was simulated by 9-holes of golf with a format contrived to produce the necessary team learning experiences.  Individual team success depended on strategy, execution, coaching, and communication.  The team that I was on had the best strategy (I think) and came in with the lowest score.  However, we forgot that we were a team of teams and that we needed a collective strategy so that we all optimized results. 

Our “subject matter expert” came by around at hole 3 to talk to us about strategies that would optimize performance of the group.  We told him that we were superior and ingenious strategists who were coaching each other through excellence.  We thanked him for the double eagle he helped us get and promised to give him a call around hole 8 to help us with the crushing final blow that we would inflict at the end of the round.

After we finished hole 8, one of the members of the first team that finished came back with a cart to tell us not to forget the goal of the exercise was to maximize the total performance of the five teams, not just each individual team.  But it was too late.  By the time she got the message to everyone, even though all the teams were well led and had good strategies, the ultimate focus on individual team performance limited our ability to be effective as a group. 

It’s no surprise that companies face this same dilemma today.  Wageman (et. al) described in their book Senior Leadership Teams an example of why this is a critical problem for CEOs to solve.  They presented a case study of a team which was actually just a loose confederation of individual managers each with their own agenda.  Though the team in question had clear marching orders, there was little unity among the members and they often repeatedly returned to the same issues meeting after meeting.   Boy, this rings a bell. 

Leaders today who are facing extremely difficult problems with complex solutions need more than their individual heroics to prevail.  They need a high-performing team of senior leaders who have a group focus, shared direction, and who know how to harness their collective strength to solve their most difficult problems. 

We figured this out after two holes but didn’t care.  But leaders who lead during uncertain times that require tremendous results need to care.  And they must understand what they need to do in order to put the right conditions in place for success.  Yes, I had to eat my own words – they tasted Sweet.

Linda Cureton, CIO NASA

The Bossy CIO

Everyone is asking me about the latest reorganization in NASA.  In particular, the Center CIOs now report to me.  They ask, so it must be great that all the Center CIOs all belong to you.  The reality is that there’s not much truth to that.  The reality is that I now belong to all of THEM.

John C. Maxwell describes in The 21 Indispensible Qualities of a Leader the value of Servanthood.  He notes that we all notice in the service industry when a worker doesn’t really want to help people.  People can detect easily in a leader’s heart.  The best leaders serve others and not themselves. 

It’s funny where you find leadership lessons.  I found one on this topic in a children’s book by Joy Berry called Being Bossy: Help Me Be Good.  It was left behind by my adorable niece Alyssa who mercilessly bossed around her big brother Brandon.  You can read a story about Katie and Tami and learn about being bossy. 

The author says that,

“No one likes to be bossed around.  Giving into a bossy person runs counter to human nature.  Most people do not want to relinquish control of their lives to someone else.  Therefore, it is normal and even healthy when children resist being bossed by another person.”

Here are some characteristics of bossy people.  They:

·         Want to have their way all the time.

·         Like to tell others what to do.

·         Think they know the best for everyone.

·         Expect others to obey them.

·         Try to bribe, threaten, or bribe others.

Maxwell goes on to describe qualities of true Servant Leadership.

1.      Puts others ahead of his own agenda.

2.      Possesses the confidence to serve

3.      Initiates service to others.

4.      Is not position conscious.

5.      Serves out of love.


Berry reminds of how temptations of being the boss can cause you to not “be a good person” and Maxwell reminds us of the high accountability that truly goes with successful servant leadership.  Many of the people that we lead would prefer to do something else; or not risk their lives; or not do what we want all of the time.  Even if it takes a quick reminder out of a children’s book, we shouldn’t forget that major leadership lesson.

 Linda Cureton, NASA CIO