Liftoff: An Astronaut Commander's Countdown For Purpose Powered Leadership

Liftoff: An Astronaut Commander's Countdown For Purpose Powered Leadership

by Rick Searfoss


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Learn and apply scores of practical, empowering, and career-boosting leadership keys from a truly out-of-this-world leader and astronaut.

You should feel the “need to lead!” In today’s business world, our teams face daunting challenges in producing real results supporting a greater purpose. Your company, team, community, and family count on you to exercise meaningful, execution-oriented leadership. If you do, you will succeed in your Missions that Matter.

As a leader in the dynamic, stressful, and sometimes dangerous endeavor of human space exploration, Astronaut Rick Searfoss has had many unique experiences. However, the success principles he applied in commanding the most complex and successful human space research mission ever are universal. They apply to any venture.

The inspiration for "Liftoff" came when Colonel Searfoss met Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, who counseled, “You’ve got over twenty-five years of experience in what American businesses need more than anything else: leadership and teamwork. Share it.” Since then, Colonel Searfoss has done just that, as a noted leadership speaker and consultant.

"Liftoff" shares the keen insights of an astronaut commander leading the way. It will enable you to:

Employ a proven, balanced-leadership model in support of a greater purpose.

Drive stellar operational results with a comprehensive, objective-centric execution system.

Apply a countdown of twelve purposeful performance principles for outstanding outcomes.

Strengthen your ability to lead and perform at the front lines to achieve mission success.

The author also shares a myriad of thrilling, inspiring, and relevant stories, told from the extraordinary perspective of one of a mere handful of humans who’ve ever been in space.
Should you launch your leadership to the highest level possible? Absolutely, so let’s “light this candle” and lift off to success!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781630476625
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Colonel Rick Searfoss is one of a select few ever to command a human space mission. Excelling as a leader, he graduated first in his USAF Academy class and served a distinguished military, NASA, and aerospace industry career. He now shares his expertise worldwide as an inspiring, high-content professional speaker.

Read an Excerpt



"Audaces fortuna juvat — Fortune favors the bold."

Virgil, from The Aeneid

This phrase is also the motto of the "Bold Tigers," the US Air Force 391Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), in which I served. It's now designated the 391Fighter Squadron; in 1991, the Air Force changed from TFS to FS for all fighter squadrons.

Purposeful Performance Principle 12: Actively seeking and embracing difficult challenges gives powerful initial direction, informs the vision, and encourages the team.

Consciously choosing to go after the toughest challenges empowers the process of finding purpose that deeply inspires. Such a positive, courageous start will energize and enable those who accept the call. Great leaders are able not only to define a vision, but also to awaken the courage within people to relish risk and difficulty for the sake of pursuing a purpose of great worth beyond themselves.

We Choose

President John F. Kennedy, in a speech at Rice University in September 1962, publicly challenged our nation to land men on the moon and return them safely by the end of the decade. America's sum total of human spaceflight experience at that point consisted of four flights, six orbits total, and barely ten people-hours in space. Contrast that to 168 people-hours each and every day of our largest seven-person crews aboard the space shuttle, and it appears paltry indeed. How could we do it, and furthermore, why would our president ask of us such a seemingly improbable, if not impossible, task?

President Kennedy's uplifting rationale:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.

He framed the challenge, set the bar 250,000 miles high, and turned that orb hanging in the sky into the toughest of targets. Our national team rose to that challenge. We accomplished unimaginably more in exploration, science, and technology development than if we had just continued to coast along without that formidable target before us. The Apollo Program fired our imaginations and touched generations, even evolving humankind's sense of self as we viewed, for the first time, our beautiful blue-and-green home planet from afar. The palpable example to our nation and the world continues to inspire the very best, even to this day.

That Vision Thing

Crafting a vision, that highest of concepts guiding a team, is a nearly universal best practice these days. Virtually all of the hundreds of client companies I've spoken to during the last decade have carefully developed vision statements. It has been very rewarding to interact with these organizations and to support, through my presentations, the positive changes they aim to produce.

By its very nature, vision is a long-term consideration of a desired future state. Short, focused, clear, and inspiring — all these qualities are important in articulating vision. This book won't dwell on these aspects. By and large, most companies get it already. However, without this foundation, execution will waver and falter. Furthermore, the vision statements that stand out as most compelling are the ones that are the most demanding and have the deepest purpose.

It's inherent in human nature to aspire to a better future state. We all find it tougher, however, to willingly put forth the grinding effort to get there. Those who courageously Choose the Hard in their vision undoubtedly accomplish the most. The highest achievement end state requires the deepest commitment.

Accepting the Challenge

Absolutely nothing is easy about human spaceflight. The energy required to accomplish it is mindboggling. The environment is forbidding and treacherous. The preparation never ends. For the flight crews, the vast volume of details to learn and master are daunting. Multiple lurking, dangerous "unknown unknowns," any one of which could scuttle the mission and kill the crew, make it one of the most difficult ventures humans can undertake. Successful human spaceflight requires life-and-death teamwork and leadership. The fact that devoted flight crew and ground support teams alike generally make it look easy can diminish our appreciation of how tough it truly is.

The most difficult technical thing I've ever done in my life was to reach the required pinnacle of readiness to climb aboard space shuttle Columbia as a rookie pilot astronaut (PLT). The duties of the front-right-seat PLT position make it technically the most demanding crew position in the most complex aerospace vehicle ever built. Fortunately, I was immersed in an incredible crew-support culture that collectively and intuitively valued accepting rigorous challenges. With my commander (CDR), Air Force Colonel John Blaha, mentoring and encouraging, that team culture pulled me along and made the key difference in readiness and my value to the team.

I determined from that experience to model and emphasize Choosing the Hard in future leadership opportunities and team settings. Later in my astronaut career, that leadership opportunity came when I was selected to command the STS-90 Neurolab mission on Columbia. Neurolab was the most complex science research human space mission ever flown. The ambitious NASA and international science teams charged with making it a useful, productive mission pulled out all the stops. They heaped our plate to overflowing with an aggressive and complicated suite of world-class, leading-edge life science experiments. Most had never even been attempted in space.

With five rookies out of a seven-astronaut crew on this mission and the unparalleled payload complexity, it proved essential that every crewmember accept, even embrace, the challenge. It made my job as the leader easier and leveraged our team effectiveness with everyone's eagerness always to pay the price in doing the hard things needed for success.

In my consulting and speaking, I've worked with companies in industries as wide-ranging as banking to pharmaceuticals to oil drilling. Though business details vary widely, the organizational challenges are all essentially the same. Most don't actually do rocket science, but they all nevertheless operate in today's dazzlingly complex world. None of them can afford not to embrace the most difficult demands that complexity levies. In that increasingly demanding environment, though typically not a matter of life and death, success or failure hinges on effective leadership in pursuing those consciously chosen challenges.

Why Take the Risk?

Indeed, why take any risk? Committing deeply to a difficult purpose is risky, whether or not you literally risk your life. What if success doesn't come? How can I really get excited about this new team or latest initiative? What if I'm disappointed yet again if my team or I as an individual fall short?

Valid doubts and concerns may hold you back from diving headlong after the toughest challenges. However, the very act of courageously making that commitment starts up the passion engine. As your team builds on the commitment, that engine will rev up into overdrive. The result will be results!

It is never enough solely to have a predefined purpose. Teams that work and rework purpose, while actively pushing the limits, invest fully in their mission. Gaining a firm understanding of the mission's value naturally drives a willingness to choose a difficult, potentially risky path toward mission accomplishment. In turn, the purposeful dedication will set high expectations and contribute to an adaptive, high-performing organization.

Pause for a Collective Courage Top Off

Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. Seven crewmates in orange "pumpkin suits" step off the "astrovan" on a quiet and sunny Florida spring morning in 1998. The heady organic odor of surrounding swamps mingles incongruously with the faintly industrial smell of the pad complex. The crew pauses next to the slumbering Columbia, like hobbits gazing up at J.R.R. Tolkien's dragon Smaug.

When a rocket on a launch pad is fueled up and the support structure pulled away, it sighs, groans, and occasionally hisses as if alive, yet asleep. When it is a winged orbiter plastered astride a tank filled with 1.6 million pounds of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, in turn coupled to two monstrous solid rocket boosters (SRBs), that rocket truly resembles a mythical dragon. She's ready to awaken, breathe fire, and fling herself off the perch.

As planned, this team of miniscule humans takes a couple of minutes just to be in the moment. While standing in the shadow of their dragon, gazing up, they each ponder the import of what they will do in just a few hours.

Where did this short team interlude come from? Why was it part of the timeline? What was the point? There was certainly no required technical reason. It was commander initiated, from a mentor who had been through the process twice before. I had felt the awe-inspiring, intangible teambuilding benefit of taking a brief pause in such a dramatic setting just before plunging into full-execution mode. I was determined that my crew have the same opportunity to briefly ponder, in that dramatic setting, the magnificence of the enterprise of which they were privileged to be a part.

Everyone needed to recognize the collective effort and courage that had brought us together to this point. It would be a treasured memory for a lifetime. With that thought in mind, I, as commander, insisted our schedulers build that five-minute pause into our tightly scheduled prelaunch timeline.

Personally, I considered how grateful I was to go to space again. As commander, I especially felt gratified to bring along a fully prepared team, including five rookies who had proven themselves. They were as ready and deserving as any astronauts ever to take that ride. Collectively, that joint experience topped off our personal courage propellant tanks. It was helpful to have that boost so close to the upcoming thunderous launch.

As empowering as courageously choosing difficult challenges can be, doing the hard work to get there can prove exhausting. The occasional pause to refresh and renew is valuable. Stepping back to ponder and reflect on the mission prepares everyone to serve more effectively.

A Mach-25 Commute Is Still Just a Commute

The variety and scope of missions flown on the space shuttle over thirty years is breathtaking, but not widely appreciated. This public perception is perhaps a natural consequence of so many flights, 135 in all, and because every launch and landing looks pretty similar. The payload purposes are fulfilled in orbit, mostly out of sight and mind to the casual observer. However, this unseen phase is the one that really matters.

Over the course of the program, these specialized missions fulfilled a plethora of deep and important purposes. The scientific and exploration accomplishments have indeed been profound. Launch and landing, though risky and exciting while moving along at up to twenty-five times the speed of sound, were really just the commute to and from that important payload work.

Because of the danger and difficulty, it would appear that preparing for the risky, dynamic launch and landing phases serve as prime examples of challenging purpose. However, when viewed in another light, those operations really just support the actual mission. It is important to recognize the true mission purpose and choose to stay focused on it. The challenge is to not allow yourself to be sidetracked from the ultimate purpose.

Any venture has its own "commute." Many team activities, sometimes even the urgent or exciting ones, don't contribute fully to the team purpose. We mustconstantly sort through all our activities and prioritize to promote those that give real payoff, or payload if you will.

Tough Targets

Sometimes the tough targets can be literal ones. Early in my Air Force career, I flew the F-111 Aardvark, a specialized, swing-wing, low-level, all-weather night attack aircraft. The Vark was the fastest airplane in the world at sea level altitudes. My teammates and I at RAF Lakenheath, England, trained daily against incredibly tough targets; we're talking little footbridges across meandering streams in the glens of the Scottish Highlands.

As a pilot, I teamed up with my Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) to navigate at treetop level to these training targets at over six hundred miles per hour, sometimes faster, often in dense fog and clouds. We'd find the target via radar, infrared sensors, or the Mark One Eyeball. Then we would track it and run a simulated attack, all within just a few seconds of the appointed time. Onboard mission tapes and bombing scores from the range, reviewed in a comprehensive debriefing after every mission, measured how we did.

The payoff? Operation El Dorado Canyon. President Reagan ordered this attack in 1986 to respond to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's support of terrorist attacks in Germany. In the dark at 2:00 a.m. local time, April 15, 1986, eighteen Lakenheath F-111s streaked inbound at low level, nearly supersonic over the Mediterranean Sea, and obliterated the assigned targets in Tripoli and the Benghazi Airfield. When he saw how huge his target was as it filled his infrared scope, the Benghazi lead WSO loudly exclaimed for the mission tape, "Ooh, baby!" What a contrast to the tiny, hard-to-find practice targets. Choosing the tough targets in training had paid off well.

I had rotated back stateside to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho in 1984 to become an instructor pilot and train new F-111 crewmembers in the 391Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), the "Bold Tigers." Like other stateside-stationed Aardvark drivers, I missed this particular operation. A third of the world away, I had range control officer duty that same day at Saylor Creek Bombing Range in southern Idaho. Two F-111s checked in on the radio and asked me if I'd heard what our Lakenheath buddies had done. I hadn't, so the lead pilot told me, "They just went and clobbered Gaddafi!" I responded, "And we're here bombing Idaho. You're cleared hot!" We were incredibly proud of our colleagues when we learned the details of the mission. Although disappointed in not being able to be there for the action ourselves, we honored them. We also appreciated that through disciplined adherence to choosing tough targets, they were ready when the nation called.

The aspect of honoring comrades after Operation El Dorado Canyon also manifested a more personal and poignant tone. I learned a day after the raid that one of my former WSOs, Captain Paul Lorence, was killed during the attack. I had been his first aircraft commander in the 492nd TFS, the "Madhatters." This brilliant, likable, and courageous gentleman and I had gone after many of those little Scottish footbridges together. It takes courage to pay the required price when Choosing the Hard. In Paul's case, it was the ultimate price.

The experience from Operation El Dorado Canyon, coupled with continued, disciplined training, further prepared the F-111 community for more action a few years later. Using the Pave Tack precision-guided weapons system, F-111s in Desert Storm turned in a stellar performance against a full range of ground targets. They destroyed more enemy aircraft than any other warplane, made over fifteen hundred verified armor kills, and delivered the special heavyweight bunker-buster, laser-guided bombs that finally convinced Saddam he had no place to hide.

Max Q: Push on Through

Max Q is a fairly well-known term from space shuttle operations. Because the NASA public affairs announcers always pointed out when the launching shuttle encountered max Q, I meet many people who've heard of it. Perhaps because it sounds cool and spacey, they also tend to remember the term, even though they might not know exactly what it is. Max Q describes the point of maximum aerodynamic stress on an aircraft or launching rocket as it speeds through the atmosphere.

The amount of Q, or dynamic pressure, comes from two sources: the thickness of the air the vehicle is passing through and the vehicle's speed. The actual formula is ½ rho V2, where the Greek letter ITLρITL is the air's density and V2 is the true airspeed squared. Squaring the speed very quickly drives up the dynamic pressure and stress as we accelerate. This concept directly ties to the idea of Choosing the Hard and, in particular, choosing to counter the resistance and difficulties that come along as we pick up steam in our execution.

When we go after the most challenging goals to fulfill our purpose, we must, with open eyes, realize from the start that we will meet all kinds of resistance. Opposition will be present in all things — that's the inherent nature of moving to a better state. The thicker the air, the greater the resistance. One way to handle that resistance is, like the space shuttle, to focus on traveling a quickly ascending path. Because in the atmosphere the air density drops off rapidly with altitude, a launching rocket stays close to vertical until climbing above most of the atmosphere, then really ramps up the speed to continue to orbit. For us, upon making our choices and recognizing the opposition, we must concentrate on staying above the fray of the lesser distractions and more petty concerns. Diligent focus on our purpose is necessary. Before we know it, many of those high-density resistance items have fallen behind us, and we're on our way.


Excerpted from "Liftoff"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Colonel Rick Searfoss.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Using this Book, Your Flight Data File


12. Choose the Hard

11. Make the Mission Matter


10. Work the Matrix

9. Build Total Trust


8. Balance the Orbit

7. Tether to Principles


6. Create Objective-Centric Operations

5. Pace It Perfectly

4. Prepare Diligently and Constantly

3. Drive Awareness and Learning

2. Persist to Prevail

1. Propel Accountability for Results

Summary: Liftoff to Success

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