Leadership vs. Management Through Rocket Science

This year I have had the privilege of working as a leader for an engineering project for my school. Long story short, I worked with a team of engineering students to design a payload that will ultimately find its way into a sounding rocket to be launched out of Wallops Flight Facility, travel 100 miles above sea level, and go zero to Mach 2 in less than two seconds. We collaborated with two organizations, American Semiconductor Inc. and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was an absolutely incredible experience.

Here’s the rub though: I have never had this much responsibility before. For the love of everything good, I was 20 years old, leading a team building something that would go in space!

I wasn’t totally unprepared for this experience though. I had worked on similar projects for two years in smaller positions. There was still much to be learned though. And I wanted to share some of my thoughts that came from this journey.

1) Every leader is a manger, but not every manager is a leader.
To me, a manager is someone who sets objectives and deadlines and exists outside of the group. Group here referring to the team being managed or led. Managers show up around big deadlines when a product is to be delivered, to see the finished product. A leader does those exact same things, but on a much frequent basis. Leaders are intimately involved with the project and the people, guiding the project at smaller increments.

2) Leaders are unflinching when faced with the unknown.
One of the great things about being an engineering student, especially when I get to work on these types of projects, is every day is a new challenge. A good leader does not shy away from the new, but embraces that small uncomfortable uncertainty. The future is a place of uncertainty, and the people who change the world are going to be working in the unknown.

3) Leaders are versatile.
I am a physics engineering student, meaning I take foundational sampler courses in mechanical and electrical engineering classes, but dive into higher lever physics courses. That being said, this project has put me way out of my comfort zone over the past three years. I have been a programmer, 3D designer, machinist, circuit builder and tester, just to name a few. Yes, I had people working under me who specialized in these matters os I didn’t have to constantly worry about those areas, as every project should have. But, sometimes life would happen and more hands were needed on deck and I was asked to help.

This is not a bad thing, for it is a consequence of working on the cutting edge. In order to maintain the intimacy with the project that being a leader requires, a leader should be comfortable stepping out of their leader/manager position and getting their hands dirty. This annihilates the detrimental schism between leadership and people involved in the nuts and bolts of the project and keeps management from setting impossible/unreasonable deadlines.

4) Leaders are not afraid to ask for help
No one in life has all the answers, that is too much of a task. There will always be a challenge that seems to daunting for you that is trivial for someone else. Regardless of degrees or achievements, everyone you meet will be smarter than you in some way. Leaders recognize this and are not afraid to ask for help. This can take a toll on your pride, but your pride alone cannot finish a project. Fresh eyes and a clear mind work wonders on challenges.
On a similar vein, there is a lot that I have to learn about leadership. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts and advice! That way we all grow as human beings and leaders, working towards a better world.

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2 comments

  1. Wow, for being only 20 years old, you hit a lot about leadership right on the nose! I especially was impressed with the insight that real leaders get their hands dirty, ask for help and realize they don’t know everything. I think managers that refuse to get their hands dirty and yet pile on more and more unrealistic burdens are the inspiration behind the Dilbert comics. In my job experience, I only wish I worked for leaders, rather than managers. I have no use for managers….or respect.

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