Channeling Astronaut Mark Watney: Effective Leadership In The Age Of ‘What Else Could Possibly Go Wrong?’


Astronaut walking solo on Mars: leadership in uncertain times concept
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Sol 45

I have been alone in my home office for over a month, not seeing anyone. I’ve had to learn all sorts of new technology to stay alive, workwise. I have literally planted 60 heads of lettuce in the backyard, so according to the movie The Martian, technically I’ve colonized my small patch of Pleasantville, New York. I haven’t had a haircut in almost two months. The only difference between astronaut Mark Watney and me, is that he lost weight and I’ve gained it.

It’s been seven weeks since I closed my firm’s physical office. If you’re in management, like me, during this time you’ve felt isolated, challenged, overwhelmed, supported, determined, often stressed, sometimes abandoned and sometimes on a bit of an adventure trying to figure all this out. And that’s just on a good morning.

In the last few weeks, you’ve probably had to furlough employees so they can make ends meet by taking advantage of benefits programs. You may have had to take the very difficult step of laying off some cherished co-workers. You’ve worked with other colleagues to craft new business solutions and find new approaches to open doors with clients. You’ve applied for government loan programs, not completely sure what they are offering or how best to use the revenue. And you’ve heard about colleagues whose health has been impacted by COVID-19.

How do you keep going when…

…you miss those who have been furloughed or laid off?

…you’re so grateful for and humbled by those colleagues who have kept the creative juices flowing?

…you’re making decisions on the information available when you know that information will change, sometimes by the day or hour?

…you’re thinking, praying and pulling for those you know who are or have been sick?

In the movie The Martian, there’s a scene that really struck me. (Mild spoilers ahead.) It’s after the hatch explodes and Watney loses his crops. He covers the opening with a tarp, but every time the wind blows, he can hear the tarp snap taut and strain. He winces, knowing if the tarp tears or blows open, it’s all over. Yet he grits his teeth, inhales deeply and perseveres. As he says at the end of the movie, “In space, you solve one problem, then you move on to the next, and then on to the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

We’re all in what feels like the Martian landscape now. You may be trying to figure out how to teach your kids, manage your finances in the face of uncertainty, stay healthy in spite of an invisible and unpredictable virus, connect with loved ones, maintain your mental health and keep your business afloat. Each news bulletin feels like the snap of the tarp. We need every bit of grit we can muster to stay focused on the task at hand. We need to solve one problem at a time and move on to the next. Then, we’ll get to come home.

If you’re in management, here are some straightforward ideas to help you through this difficult landscape:

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  • Over-communicate with your team, while being clear and concise – they have a lot of information coming at them, too.
  • Make decisions based on what you know at the time and remain nimble enough to change as quickly as the news evolves.
  • Let your team know that today’s decisions are made on the best available information, and that those decisions may change tomorrow. Your honesty and transparency with your team will help everyone know that we’re all in this together and help them appreciate that sudden changes in direction are part of the larger plan to keep everything moving forward.
  • Focus on what’s in front of you. If you don’t solve today’s problems, tomorrow’s problems won’t matter very much.
  • In spite of the point above, make sure you’re solving today’s problems with an eye on meeting your larger objectives for down the road.
  • If you manage with honesty and integrity, your team will be both understanding when you make the tough calls and a bit more forgiving when you make the inevitable misstep. Keep true to your values and guiding principles, even when it’s tough.
  • Channel Mark Watney: grit your teeth, breathe and keep moving forward.

Like you, I’m working on solving some bigger problems each day. Tonight, I’m just learning to cut my own hair.

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