High-Performance Teams at NASA and Leadership Lessons from Thomas Zurbuchen (Sparkr Podcast #27)

Would you like to know how to build a high-performance team? Or would you like to learn the hands-on leadership lessons from the man who has put robots on Mars? If your answer is yes - as it obviously should be - then look no further.

Leadership Lessons from ex Chief Scientist at NASA Thomas Zubuchen

At NASA, Thomas was arguably one of the most powerful scientists on the planet with responsability over thousands of people and a 8 billion dollar budget.

Under his leadership, NASA successfully launched the historic James Webb Telescope which explores the origins of the universe. They also landed robots on Mars and accomplished dozens of other very impressive missions.

People make the difference

It might be surprising to learn, that even if you are working on such a complicated technological endeavor as landing safely on a planet millions of miles away, it’s still the people problems that are the most important success factor.

In this episode of the Sparkr Podcast, Thomas explains how you build a high-performance team based on diversity, openness, transparency, courageous decision making and more.


leadership zurbuchen nasa

Building an organization that learns faster than it fails

Thomas shares a lot of valuable insights and wisdom from his impressive career. During the James Webb mission for example, Thomas oversaw 10'000 people and it goes without saying that it is a very hard challenge to keep the organization on schedule and keep teams operating effectively. Culture was the key to achieve this.

"Culture is the responsibility of leaders."

On such a scale it is mission critical that you build an organization that learns faster than it fails by establishing a culture of full transparency. And Thomas is convinced that "culture is the responsibility of leaders." In the conversation we learn a lot about the cultural 'operating system' of the NASA mission with which Thomas managed to turn a project that was broken and behind schedule into a success.


leadership zurbuchen nasa

Leadership Qualities

When I asked Thomas how he identifies leaders who can make an organization successful, he gave a list of characteristics:

  • Leaders are people looking for purpose
  • They aligning others
  • Leaders see strengths and weaknesses in people and systems
  • They are good observers
  • They know how they can make people become their better selves
  • Leaders create success in the team
  • Leaders have the courage to make a decision

All of that is required if you want to build a disciplined momentum that allows you to send remote controlled robots to Mars and explore the red planet.

And if these characteristics are good enough for NASA, they will most likely serve you well, too.


You might also like this: A conversation with the Employee No 8 and SVP of Infrastructure at Google, Urs Hölzle

Feel free to listen to this episode of the Sparkr Podcast with Urs Hölzle. He's responsible for building the infrastructure behind Google Search, Google Cloud, YouTube etc. Also, he was one of the very first employees and tells the story how Google was built.

Get to know the KANO innovation method to create delightful products

When innovating you always have to deal with limited resources. The KANO method gives you guidance on how to design new or improve existing products and services.

Sparkr Podcast

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