NASA administrator and former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson reinforced the importance of humility and integrity within leadership during a presentation at UF Friday.
Nelson, who has served in the Florida House of Representatives and in both chambers of U.S. Congress, gave his sixth presentation of the Nelson Initiative on Ethics and Leadership series, which aims to educate the public about how to build strong leadership skills.
Nelson spoke to about 50 students and community members in the George A. Smathers Library Grand Reading Room. The forum was free and open to the public for those who registered. The Levin College of Law Center for Governmental Responsibility partnered with the library to host the event, which began at 2 p.m.
Nelson sat on stage with retired NASA astronauts Charles Bolden and Robert “Hoot” Gibson as they discussed what it means to be an ethical leader.
“I have a responsibility to speak out on what I know and my experiences,” Nelson said.
The program has held public forums at UF, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida. Last March, Nelson spoke in Orange County for more than 900 attendees. Friday’s event was originally planned to be held before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Nelson spoke about his experience as the newest NASA Administrator, for which Vice President Kamala Harris swore him into May 3, 2021. Nelson has known astronauts Bolden and Gibson for 37 years, since he was first assigned to join the space program during his time as the chairman for the U.S. House of Representatives’s space subcommittee.
The trio were members of the seven-member crew Space Shuttle Columbia for a six-day trip in January 1986. Ten days later, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into launch and killed its seven crew members.
Mission control didn’t listen to warning signs from those on the ground that day about the temperature being too cold for lift off, indicated by the icicles on the launch tower, Nelson said.
“Pay attention to what the people at the ground level are seeing,” Nelson said.
Today, NASA is learning from its past mistakes, Nelson said. Leaders are learning to listen to the team and reinforcing the importance of communication.
Despite the mental stress and physical exhaustion that comes with being an astronaut, Nelson said, Bolden and Gibson were part of “one of the most fun-loving crews.”
In the space industry, anything could go wrong, Bolden said. But humor removes tension from an otherwise stressful career path.
“I started to realize that laughter is therapeutic,” Bolden said.
Laughter is equally important for personal comfort as it is in leadership, Bolden said. Being approachable, relatable and understanding helps build a strong connection between leaders and employees.
Bolden grew up in a segregated South Carolina. He was elected president of his flight program’s freshman class during former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s initiative to make the space program more diverse.
Bolden served as NASA administrator from 2009 to 2017 after former President Barack Obama appointed him to the role. Bolden learned that one critical role of a leader is to protect the team.
“My job was to be the umbrella that kept everyone off my employees,” Bolden said. “Keep subordinates from being harassed and bombarded from the outside world.”
A leader is supposed to take the criticism on behalf of the team, Bolden said. When he was a child his parents always told him to “take care of your people,” which Bolden took to heart during his time with NASA.
The forum also addressed the key aspects of integrity and humility, which build the foundation for strong leadership.
“Recognize that you do not know everything,” Bolden said, “It’s incumbent upon you as the leader to ask the right questions.”
In a role as strategically technical where every piece of the puzzle has to work in perfect unison to ensure employees’ safety, Bolden said it’s important to always alert leaders about potential errors and warnings, rather than hope the issue will go away.
“Ask the tough questions,” Bolden said. “But then open your ears to hear the responses back.”
Gibson, who began flying in planes at the age of 5 with his father, flew five space shuttle flights between 1984 and 1995 before leaving NASA in 1996 to become a pilot for Southwest Airlines. Like Bolden, Gibson said he always prioritized fun and humor in his work.
“We’re either going to live or die,” Gibson said. “But if we’re not having fun, we’re doing this all wrong.”
By his fourth flight he was the most experienced pilot astronaut at the time. But when he was assigned to oversee more than 100 astronauts, he said his gratitude masked his fear.
“Holy smokes, I don’t think I’m smart enough,” he said of his feelings at the time.
Nelson, who is the second-sitting member of U.S. Congress to travel into space, spoke with Gibson and Bolden about the sense of imposter syndrome they each experienced as they moved up in the rank at NASA.
Nelson joined the space program as a politician and lawyer, so he learned the importance of asking questions to those who knew their craft. He said he was assigned to lead “a bunch of wizards” at NASA when he first assumed the administrative role almost two years ago.
“One day you're going to pinch yourself and ask ‘How did I get here?’” Nelson said.
He continued to learn from his mistakes and developed the courage to ask the questions he didn’t know the answers to. Fundamental to being a leader is maintaining integrity, humility and learning to listen to others and accept differences, he said.
“We only hear what we want to hear,” Nelson said. “We don’t walk across the political aisle. We don’t engage the outcasts. We only engage in our comfortable cubicle instead of reaching out.”
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Sophia Bailly is a first-year journalism major and the graduate and professional school reporter. When she isn't writing, she enjoys reading, listening to podcasts and spending time outside.