It May Be Rocket Science

This musing is an abbreviated version of my keynote at last week’s RECON23, the Annual Leadership Conference of The Kimmell Foundation. Make plans now to attend RECON24 on October 18, 2024.

When I was young, I loved fire, explosions, and engineering—the “knowing how stuff works” thing. So, naturally, I got interested in model rockets. There was a hobby shop not far from my house, and I would walk there and buy kits to build rockets and the “engines” to make them fly. (Yes, they sold explosive devices to an unsupervised 11 yr. old; those were the good old days.)

My launch pad was an orange plastic tripod with a metal rod and a round metal plate—pretty much standard issue model rocket gear. You could set the angle of the rod to direct the rocket. If it was breezy, you could shoot the rocket into the wind so it would land close to you once it was done with its flight.

When I got bored with the typical rockets, I had a genius idea. I used a nail and a shotgun shell primer cap to arm the nose cone of a small rocket and then packed the rocket with gunpowder. I had created a flying bomb. I calculated the arc of flight given a particular starting angle, the weight of the rocket and the selected engine. Basically, the same math they use during war to shell an enemy position.

So, with my homemade flying bomb, rocket launch pad, and calculations in hand, there I was in my backyard. My plan was for the rocket to take off from my backyard and arc over the neighbors houses gracefully then plummet to earth in the middle of the practice field about a block away. I knew from experience that two things would be true. One, I would hear the explosion. Two, it would leave a mark where it occurred.

I set everything up, carefully checking my angle and direction adjustments. When everything was perfect (as far as I could tell), I excitedly lit the rocket. It whooshed up into the air and when the engine was depleted, began to gently arc over and then fell out of sight before I heard the muffled thump of an explosion a block away. Success!

However, the rocket didn’t land in the practice field. It landed in the backyard of a house near the practice field, creating a beautiful crater about 15 feet from the house. Not really a success. More like a very serious failure that could have included property damage, legal action, and significant cost.

I went back to the drawing board—I actually had a drawing board, called a drafting table—like Wile E Coyote in the roadrunner cartoons. I won’t bore you with all the things I worked through. Instead, I’ll skip to what I found and what I believe it can tell us about leadership.

Leaders must have a stable platform.

I had a wobbly launch platform. The plastic tripod and thin rod were flexible, and, under the stress of the rocket launch, they would flex and move and change the initial trajectory of the rocket. My calculations were fine; the rocket was fine; it just got started a hair off course and ended up far from its planned destination.

Having a stable platform to operate from is critical to successful leadership. True stability is linked closely with mental health. Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables me to cope with the stresses of life, realize my abilities, learn well, work well, and contribute to my community.

Leaders must understand their power.

I’m still a little concerned that as a pre-teen I had access to fairly dangerous items. (Someday, I’ll tell you about the chemistry set my parents gave me for Christmas.) Leadership is a little like handing an 11 yr. old a flying bomb.

There’s a cascading effect of bad and good leadership, particularly when leaders have a team of new and/or emerging leaders. Basically, if you have inspirational leaders, they are generally supporting the development of other inspirational leaders, and if you have ineffective leaders, they are supporting the development of leaders in their image.

Leaders must identify a clear target.

At least I knew where I wanted my rocket (bomb) to land. It is wild how often I talk to leaders who are functionally just sending their rockets off into space without any clear vision for where they are going.

This is why a significant way leaders demonstrate they care about their team is to illuminate the vision. Illuminate means to supply or brighten with light. Illuminating the vision is like turning on the light. It clearly shows the landscape and identifies where the team is going and what it looks like to get there. That clear view and understanding then empowers and encourages each person on the team to step forward with purpose and to continue to push when things get difficult.

Leaders must make course corrections.

Once it was in flight, I could not change the course of my rocket. My perception was that I had it all figured out. I didn’t. Gusts of wind, variations in the cheaply made rocket engine, and subtle imperfections on the surface of the rocket all gently nudged the rocket off its original course.

Pride, arrogance, narcissism—among others—are states that equate to being in a rocket with no guidance system. To be able to understand when our rocket isn’t on course, we must foster a culture of healthy feedback, which requires humility. Starting in the right direction is critical, but staying on course is more critical. How do you rate yourself on your stability (health), power (view of others), and target (vision)? If you are not where you can be and should be, how willing are you to seek feedback and make course corrections? Great leaders know that their health, view of others, vision, and humility are the rocket science of leadership. And doing this well is the Bison Way.