NASA has a peculiar career path for some of its ‘top performers’. Rather than progressing in the organizational hierarchy, it's about progressing one's contribution to the mission. And those two might not always be the same thing.


A generic sketch may look like this:


What if your career progression looked like this? Would you consider it a success? A bumpy road to the top? What if at the last station of your career you were not back at the top? Would it then be a failure?

NASA astronauts take this career path. They may start out focused entirely on training, taking up additional operational and managerial responsibilities, perhaps being the CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator), i.e. direct point of contact for astronauts to the ground team, along the way. Of course, at some point they may be lucky to go to space.


On their return, they are not put on a pedestal; instead, they debrief – for months – to help make the next missions better. Then they take up an operational or managerial role to contribute to the organization with their new experience; perhaps they go on to train a new generation of astronauts, all while working on their own readiness for a potential second space flight (which may never come).

NASA astronauts would not consider that career path a failure.

And so perhaps the first chart was misleading. In the ‘NASA model’ it’s not so much about progressing from bottom to top in the organizational hierarchy, but about progressing your contribution to the organization’s mission, so better captured like this:



You are moving up and down in the hierarchy. But in the process you continuously increase your contribution to the organization's mission.


In the words of Chris Hadfield, retired astronaut and author of “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”:

“[A]stronauts continuously move up and down, rotating through different roles and ranks. From an organizational standpoint this makes sense: it keeps the space program strong at all levels and also reinforces everyone’s commitment to teamwork in pursuit of a common goal […] that’s much bigger than we are as individuals. […] At NASA it’s just a given that today’s star will be tomorrow’s stagehand. […] And sooner or later you realize that it’s better for everyone, including you, if you climb down the ladder graciously.” (p. 268)

The quote highlights multiple benefits of the model:

  • Experience & knowledge circulates within the organization, making the various functions stronger for it

  • Humility is a cornerstone and expectation in the organizational culture. Putting one’s ego in check for the benefit of others

  • Purpose-driven individuals contribute to more than their own careers


What if this model was more widespread? What if a CEO’s next role was that of a business unit manager or a key account manager? What if a member of parliament did not run for another term but chose to support the next generation of political leaders instead?


Ryan Holiday’s ‘Ego is the enemy’ is one of those books that I have been drawn towards without wanting to admit it to myself or others. It was more comfortable believing that I do not have an ‘ego’. This changed after reading the book.

To be clear: having an ego is not necessarily being egotistic. We can care about others, but still have an ego. Having an ego is more about relating whatever happens first and foremost to oneself. An ‘egoic’ reaction is one when people are

"thinking consciously about what they want, what they are doing, who they are, what other people think about them, and how things are going for them. In these situations, people are being egoic; they are highly self-absorbed, and their reactions are all about them" (Mark Leary, Psychology Today)


Good leadership requires having one’s ego in check, because:

Ego gets in the way of true listening


A strong, unchecked ego relates everything that someone says to oneself: ‘I don’t agree with them’, ‘I had a very similar experience that I am going to share when they have stopped talking’, ‘I know how to solve their problem’, ‘what shall I say next?’, ‘what if they notice that I haven’t listened to them?’ Most of the attention is on oneself, not the other.

True listening is crucial for effective leadership to

  • understand what is really going on (also by ‘listening’ for what is not being said),

  • building rapport in a team,

  • create the conditions for what Nancy Kline calls a ‘Thinking Environment’ – where through listening, we give space for people to think for themselves and thereby come up with novel ideas.

Ego gets in the way of connection


We usually present a persona to the world, a mask that is meant to represent (the best sides of) ourselves. Our ego may have our best interests at heart, but it disconnects us from others. We let go of that mask when with loved-ones and good friends. And then we wonder how to build relationships at work, with clients, with our boss, with voters. What if building relationships at work was not fundamentally different from building relationships with friends & family?

Leaders who can connect with others remind us

  • that it is OK to show who we are, to be vulnerable, and tap into the power of vulnerability

  • of our humanity: beneath our titles and corporate/party affiliations, we are human beings with similar struggles and hopes – a critical element in any vision of the future

Ego gets in the way of taking ownership


Bad leaders blame everything and everyone else, never themselves. Their ego takes the easy way out, not trusting them to be able to handle the adversity that can come from taking ownership.

Taking ownership marks good leadership because it

  • gets things done by accepting responsibility instead of wasting time looking around

  • it instils a culture of continuous learning where people are allowed to make mistakes in the process of learning

It’s not so much about whether we have an ego or not, but about being aware when it gets in the way of true listening, connecting and taking ownership.

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” (Albert Einstein)

“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of...100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivision, presenting a united facade that would cry out for unified treatment.” (Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Astronaut)


Astronauts tell us how deeply meaningful it is for them to see Earth from Space. They tell us that there are no borders, and that the atmosphere that shields us from deadly radiation and the vacuum of space is precariously thin, time is not experienced the same way as on Earth. There is awe witnessing Earth against the backdrop of the vast cosmos. And when looking down on Earth they experience a sense of oneness of all life.

Crucially, they experience all of this rather than just knowing it intellectually – and it changes them, their outlook and what they do back on Earth.

The philosopher Frank White calls the experience the ‘Overview Effect’. After interviewing dozens of astronauts and writing a book on the topic, he concedes that the experience is ‘really hard to convey […] because all you have is words’.

And so he and others are exploring different ways to convey this experience:

I ask myself: What if we really sent politicians to the moon or space, as actual space tourists or through VR? How would their outlook change? Once back on Earth, what impact would it have on their policies? How would it affect the way they do politics?


If Michael Collins is right, and political leaders look beyond divisions and tackle those global challenges that ‘cry out for unified treatment’, then that idea is worth pursuing further.

What if…

  • emerging political leaders went through that experience before taking up political office, either as part of the curricula of their political parties or as an official program of the public institution they are joining?

  • political officials regularly went through that experience, perhaps as part of a next conference, summit, retreat – why not skip a fancy dinner or a panel discussion on ‘global responsibility’ for an experience of the Overview Effect? Or negotiate climate action plans while orbiting Earth in Virtual Reality?

  • there was a cross-partisan community of space travellers (real or virtual) who work together on global issues, injecting a fresh perspective?

It’s also worth investing in that as society. While billionaire-sponsored projects are laudable and we can only hope that early space tourists – most of whom will be wealthy – will use their wealth for the global good, enabling our political representatives to take a new, fresh perspective on the challenges facing us is not their job. It's the job of democratic societies.

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