John C. Maxwell: 3 Things NASA Can Teach You About Leadership

UPDATED: February 11, 2016
PUBLISHED: February 11, 2016

You know the old saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”? What if that message is actually wrong?

Stay with me, friends. I promise you this isn’t blasphemy.

You see, teaching a man to fish won’t feed him for a lifetime… unless you actually let the man go out and fish.

Related: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

Here’s what I see in the business world all the time: Leaders, wanting to create a powerful team, pour their energy and resources into building their people. Conferences, workshops, retreats—no expense is spared to offer all the team members the skills they need to solve problems and contribute to the organization. Everyone is told how important it is for each individual to be empowered, to be able to reach objectives on his or her own.

And then everyone goes back to work—and waits for the leader to take charge. No decisions. No initiatives. No from-the-bottom-up ideas.

What happened?

The leader hasn’t really empowered his people. He has simply trained them. Empowerment happens only when a leader gives people the trust, permission and resources to make decisions and act in the organization’s best interest.

This philosophy can be a struggle to embrace. It was a lesson I learned early in my career after some members of my team confronted me and pointed out my self-centeredness. That’s when I realized that if everything depends on the leader, the team will achieve only what its leader is capable of achieving.

I made a commitment right then to empower my people. Releasing authority isn’t easy. Yet once I began handing power to my team, I was amazed at how much our organization increased its impact.

Empowerment is the way to blow the lid off any organization. Trained people who are skilled at their jobs and trusted by their leaders can do extraordinary things.

History provides us with one of the most remarkable and dramatic examples of what can happen with an empowered team: the Apollo 13 mission to the moon, one of the most famous episodes in the history of space travel—if only because it could have been one of the most tragic incidents in the history of space travel. If you weren’t around in 1970 when this perilous situation grabbed the public’s attention (or if you didn’t see the Tom Hanks movie about the moonshot gone wrong), here’s what happened: Damage to the spacecraft resulted in a life-threatening situation for the three men on board. The air supply in the lunar module—the crew’s “lifeboat” when the service module broke down—wouldn’t last long enough to bring the crew home alive.

The astronauts were literally contaminating the air with carbon dioxide every time they exhaled. That’s when a scrappy team of engineers at NASA in Houston averted disaster. They took a pile of random objects—including duct tape, plastic bags and cardboard—and used them to devise an air-filtration system essential to survival.

With lives on the line, NASA leaders trusted their people to make the impossible possible. They empowered the engineers to create a miracle, and they did.

How did the NASA brain trust do it?

They had confidence in their staff.

The engineers at NASA are some of the best in their respective fields, but so are the people who lead them. Because of the gravity of the moment, some of those leaders might have quite logically said, “I have years of experience in this field, and this is a huge assignment. I’ll take it from here.” Instead they put their faith in the engineering team, trusting them to solve the crisis.

They gave the staff permission to work.

There were no parameters, no limitations. The leaders simply said, “You have these materials with this objective, and it has to work.” Because of the situation, NASA leaders understood a powerful truth: When it comes to getting someone’s very best, expectations are better than rules. Rather than narrowing the possible outcomes, NASA opened the door for the engineers to explore the boundaries of their creativity.

They gave the staff all the resources they could.

This doesn’t mean the engineers received a blank check to do whatever they wished. They had to work with a very limited pile of materials available to the astronauts in the Apollo module. But they were told they could use any of those materials in whatever combinations they desired. In this case, the quantity of resources was limited, but the use of the resources was not.

The astronauts said, “Houston, we have a problem;” and before it was too late, NASA’s empowered engineers said, “OK, Odyssey, here’s a solution.” Great leadership made the solution possible.

While you and your team may never face a situation as dire as the Apollo 13 mission, you still face challenges together every day. Some are small; some are large; all are opportunities for your team to produce outstanding results.

The question is: Will you truly empower them?

Related: John C. Maxwell: 6 Strategies to Empower Your Team Members

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.