5 Trust Building Tools from the International Space Station

Astronaut Scott Kelly just spent an unbroken year in space, setting a U.S. record. TIME Magazine chronicled Kelly’s time aboard the International Space Station in its documentary, A Year in Space.

As I watched Kelly’s story, I was riveted. Not just by his passion and commitment, but by his remarkable capacity for trust. Trust in himself. Trust in his fellow astronauts. Trust that a million moving parts would get him safely into space and back.

Trust that when he returned, everything he left behind on Earth would still be here, waiting for him.

Among the many tools Scott Kelly gave us to develop our own capacity for trust, here are the 5 most critical:

  1. Focus not on self-promoting, but on contributing.

 On March 27, 2015, Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko waited for take off. They’d spent the last three years training for this moment. For the next year – if they survived the trip – they’d live inside the International Space Station, 250 miles above the earth.

Every day, they’d be exposed to high doses of radiation that could cause fatal cancers. They’d face constant risk of fire, poisoning from ammonia leaks, and collision with one of the countless pieces of space debris sharing their orbit.

At the end of the year, their return trip would feel like “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while on fire.”

The purpose of their mission? To advance scientific knowledge one step so NASA could one day, in the distant future, send humans to Mars.

As Kelly and Kornienko prepared for lift off, someone from mission control said what most of us would say to people taking on such risk for such uncertain rewards: “You’re heroes.”

Kelly didn’t bite. Instead, he gave this dry response:

“Heroes. Yeah.”

For Kelly, it was not about him. Over the next year, in hundreds of interviews, tweets, and calls home, Kelly offered this same levity and humbleness. His focus – literally – was on the stars, and the work required to reach them. He downplayed and sidestepped self-promotion in favor of serving others. He didn’t ask, what’s in this mission for me? He asked, how can I best contribute to this mission to ensure the best outcome for all?

When we focus on giving, serving, and bringing our best forward to advance the ‘greater good,’ our capacity for trust expands. Our actions become aligned with our highest intentions. We behave in ways that reflect our true spirit, desire to contribute, and the best versions of ourselves. People experience us as authentic; more importantly, we experience ourselves as authentic. Authenticity builds trust; trust in our relationships with other people, and trust in the relationship we hold with ourselves.

Trustworthy leaders are humble and ‘other’ focused, rather than self focused. Their intent is set on the mission, the highest best interest of others, and the business or community they serve…not on marketing ‘for their own recognition.’ They stay tuned in to the difference they can make and support others to make.

  1. Never underestimate the power of partnership.

NASA doesn’t maintain space shuttles anymore. Today, the only way astronauts can get into space is through Baikonur in Kazakhstan…the birthplace of Soviet space dominancy. For those of you who, like me, grew up during the cold war, whispered stories about this place used to give you nightmares.

Now, it’s the launching point of our nations’ shared space explorations. What can the evolution of this relationship teach us?

Never underestimate the power of partnership to expand our capacity for trust, overcome systemic distrust, and achieve the remarkable. The truth is, in partnership and united around a dream, there are very few boundaries people can’t develop trust in order to push beyond.

Partnerships support us to break barriers, embrace challenges, and step up to a new level of performance – together. Even in the midst of adversity and within a climate not conducive to trust, partnership allows us to harness skills and expertise to achieve the greater good. It all comes down to relationships; achieving more together than we could on our own.

Leaders get work done through relationships, and the foundation of those relationships is trust. Through trust, people are lifted to new heights.

  1. Prepare yourself for pinch hitter moments.

To rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station, your margin of error is two inches…while traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.

“The way you rendezvous is you get underneath [the station] and sneak up on it.” explained Kelly. “Ultimately, you have to fly within a couple of inches to get these two things to come together. At the end, there are no computers helping you anymore. The commander has to manually fly this thing. You just look out the window and use your skills as a pilot…At 17,500 mph, this is a pretty incredible concept.”

Even in outer space, in pinch hitter moments, the most advanced technology in the world (universe?) isn’t the lynchpin of effectiveness – it’s the level of trust people have in their own and others’ abilities to perform. Leadership, in fact, is all about trust. Without it, there really isn’t leadership.

When you’ve put in the time and energy to strengthen trust – in yourself, in your capabilities, and in others – you have reference points to draw upon to find your way – to chart your course into the unknown. Those experiences help you tap into what you know. You know you have what it takes and, whatever the challenge, you’ll find your way.

  1. Self-care is non-negotiable.

 At 250 miles above the Earth, the human body is changed.

Movement and balance become more difficult. Cognition decreases. Fatigue sets in. Mood can drop. Performance can slack off.

“There’s a sense of a loss of freedom,” said Kelly. “You’re here and you’re not leaving for a long time…Sometimes I think I feel completely normal, but then the next day, I think I don’t.”

Space travel requires multiple sophisticated systems to work flawlessly. As pointed out by one of the film’s commentators, the most fragile among those systems is the human body.

“I live and work here now,” Kelly reflected. “I’m just going to have to pace myself, so I have as much in my tank at the end as I did at the beginning.”

Kelly’s struggle mirrors that of leaders everywhere. Regardless of our expertise, training, passion, and commitment, leadership can take an extraordinary toll on our physical and emotional well-being. The pace can be rigorous. The demands can be taxing.

We all need to extend compassion to ourselves during periods of fatigue. It’s worth repeating: Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. When you consider that, like Kelly, you are the vehicle that carries you forward, pacing yourself and taking care of yourself becomes non negotiable.

To push yourself to the next level, you must be centered, grounded, and rested. You can’t afford for your self-confidence to waver because your mind or body are depleted. You have to know, beyond all doubt, you’ve got the reserves you need to meet the demands you face.

Trust begins with you.

  1. Leadership is prepared for incrementally – one step at a time.

 When U.S. astronauts begin the journey into space, they first leave their homes and travel to Russia. From there, they travel to Baikonur. Then, into the hermetically sealed environment of the spacecraft. And then, the Earth falls away beneath them, as they fly to the International Space Station.

“Step by step you decouple from what’s familiar here on earth,” said one of the film’s commentators as he described the journey. “Step by step you decouple from the world you know. Everything you know, everything you love, everything humanity has ever known, is 250 miles below you.”

Once on the station, Kelly stepped farther out into the void, during his first space walk.

“I’m kind of curious to see how I’ll feel when we open the hatch,” he said. “You know…the ‘scared of heights’ aspect. But, the longer you’ve been up here, the more prepared you are to go outside. You understand your ability to move around and how you need to control your body. The small amounts of force you use to move and position yourself…it’s something you get a good sense of over time.”

Does this resonate with you? I’d imagine it does. As a leader, you constantly stretch beyond your comfort zone, become acclimated, develop, grow, and then stretch again. The critical lesson here is to acknowledge how far you’ve come and draw strength from it the next time you doubt your ability to go to the next level.

Going to the next level, stepping into the unknown, and moving into ambiguity requires us to take one step at a time. With each step, our capacity for trust – both in ourselves and in other people – can expand in a way that’s rooted in tangible experiences. We have a firm footing on which to step up to – and stay – at the next level. The result?

We can see our own versions of what Kelly saw when he stepped outside the space station for the very first time:

“Such a completely different level of color and brilliance.”

Yours in trust,

Dennis Reina

[Photo courtesy of NASA Johnson via Flickr]
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