Kathy Sullivan learned early in her career at NASA that it was much too risky to be a “yes person” just to appease someone’s ego — passivity could lead to dangerous consequences. Her varied experiences and leadership roles have taught her that courage and confidence in our authority as leaders can change the way we communicate and, therefore, the way our team responds to us. Tune in as Sullivan discusses actions that define leadership and ways to develop an environment where everyone can blossom and work collectively toward mission success.
Trevor Brown 0:08
Welcome to podcast Leadership Forum conversation with leaders who serve the public good. My name is Trevor Brown, and I'm privileged to serve as Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University where we aspire to fulfill a simple phrase that Senator John Glenn used to describe what we do, inspire citizenship and develop leadership. I also have the honor of serving as the host of this conversation series. So welcome to a thoughtful and reflective conversation about leadership. I'm joined today by Kathy Sullivan, a distinguished scientist and public servant who's served in multiple roles inside and outside of government, including chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, otherwise known as NOAA, Executive Director of COSI here in Columbus, founding director of the Battelle Center for Science and Public Policy at what is now the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Administrator of NOAA, and recently the Charles A Lindbergh Chair of aerospace history at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Cathy is a Swiss army knife. In addition to all the administrative and leadership roles I just mentioned, she's an accomplished pilot, an oceanographer who sailed the seas, an astronaut who was the first woman to walk in space and then in a later shuttle mission help deploy the Hubble telescope. And most recently, she became the first woman to dive to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the deepest parts of the Earth's oceans. As a result of all this intrepid exploration, she has three world records first woman to reach Challenger Deep, the first person to visit space and the deepest point on earth, and the greatest vertical extent traveled by an individual within the Earth's exosphere. Kathy, welcome to our podcast. And thank you for joining me for a conversation about leadership in the public sector.
Kathy Sullivan 1:56
Pleasure to be with you today, Trevor?
Trevor Brown 1:58
Well, just before we get into the meat of this, I got to know that this does your world record that last one does that make? How do you say that? Are you the most vertically traveled? And and how do you put that on a resume?
Kathy Sullivan 2:13
Yeah, it's a bit of a trick for the resume. You know, I, I took a note from that great old classic song, the most beautiful girl in the world. And beautiful has three syllables. Vertical has three syllables. So I have simplified that to the, the most vertical person in the world.
Trevor Brown 2:31
I love it. I love it. Yeah. And I can't imagine there. Well, there would only be the one most vertical. But I can't imagine there are other people who say how vertical they are.
Kathy Sullivan 2:43
Buzz Aldrin, might he's also been pretty deep in the ocean and and all the way to the moon, which I cannot equal.
Trevor Brown 2:49
You can't you can't do that. Well, let's let's start by by talking about leadership broadly, and the context of where it takes place, you have served in so many different roles, and in different contexts as a as a result, what are some just basic leadership lessons that you would highlight overall, those those sort of different roles?
Kathy Sullivan 3:14
Well, you know, I think the first one that comes to mind, and I think it's central to this whole discussion, is that leadership is not a title. It is a kind of set of behaviors, that, in my experience are, they're needed at every level of any effort or organization. You know, I think, I mean, I learned that in a couple of ways as a very junior graduate student going out to sea. So I have really kind of no standing on a ship that has a captain in a first name and a chief scientist. But responsibility for helping the entire science program succeed and ensuring that the work I was charged with doing got done. And you know, you, you can't succeed at either of those things if you're just sitting back waiting for someone to tell you what to do. So keeping an expansive, comprehensive mental picture of what's going on, I would call that situational awareness, maintaining a high level of situational awareness of all the moving parts and pieces of the thing you're involved in, not just your bits. sussing out the people around you, you what's motivating them, what do they need, how are they working, so you can understand how to motivate them and work with them effectively in a direction and then applying initiative. So as I say, you're not waiting for someone to always tell you what to do now or what you now may do but you're thinking you're proposing you're you're joining in the what do we do now conversation and helping to shape it? That's kind of a first element of leading, it's just not being passive. No matter what the title is, no matter not only no matter what the title is, but you kind of no matter what you think of yourself. Um, you may not think I'm not supposed to be leading here. But the more everybody brings some of those leadership elements to the table in any enterprise, the better off the enterprise will be. Now, it may sometimes bump up against egos, or people who do cling to titles and and since they have one of you don't, you know, you might get a little bit of backlash from. But don't let that deter you in the long run.
Trevor Brown 5:24
So I want to break this question in a couple of parts. But just to preview where I hope to go, I want to start by thinking about your your rise in your career. There's a sort of an ascent, as you're taking on new roles, and those roles are moving up in organizations, you were chief scientist of NOAA, and then you ultimately became the administrator and wanting you to reflect on both the journey up, and what were some leadership skills that help move you forward. And then when you got to serve in kind of the apex in a leadership role, things that you then wanted to change as a result of like, okay, now I'm in charge here, I'm not in charge, but I have some ability to influence the context so that other people can be their best selves. And I'll start by we've talked before this, about your time at NASA. And what that was like, as a woman in a very male dominated environment, what what was that like? And what were some of the things you had to do to succeed in that environment? Where you were, again, a newbie, so to speak? And then what would be some things you'd like to change? If you had the opportunity?
Kathy Sullivan 6:35in as astronaut corps back in:
But I also read a lot of it, maybe I read too much of it as kind of you friendly opponent trying to take you out of your game or put you off your game. And so I didn't mature into an interest in inner strength, and continually check my thinking on that you what is the purpose of this competitive dynamic is, what's the balance of constructive and genuinely you're competitive. And that was another big learning curve. But again, straight out of grad school, this was never seen this culture never been in such a complex organization, had never had to figure out what I call the chessboard who's who in this enterprise. And who's, who's doing what if, if something needs done, who's the person that can do it, technically who's the person can improve it? In the sea of people, they're always around these large gatherings. So it's like knowing how each piece on the chessboard moves and the importance of knowing that about the organizational units and the individuals that are around you so that you can be both effective and efficient at helping progress happen.Trevor Brown:
So that's great, thanks for for sharing that. And by the way, I just love talking to people in technical fields who use the term wire brushing immediately can feel it on my neck in my Yeah, yeah. It'sKathy Sullivan:
just that, you know that that challenging? What do you mean, you don't know? How do you know? Yeah, yeah. And there's, you know, many people there do hold the mindset, that if, if you don't have I'm testing the strength of your convictions? And if they're not, if you're not really confident in how sound your proposal or viewpoint or whatever is, then why should I bank on you? And so that's kind of the the test that they're laying out for you oftentimes,Trevor Brown:
so fast forward some years after that 26 year old experience of walking into that highly competitive environment. When you were say, you know, the administrator, NOAA, what What, did you approach that differently as a result of that NASA experience? Or what were some things you wanted to change about a leadership contest?Kathy Sullivan:
I did approached it quite differently, I came through my NASA experience, I think was some deeper understanding of what the intentions and effects of that competitive challenging leadership style were, but also convinced of two other points. And one was that it was not the only way to achieve excellence. And that as a cultural overlay and method. It I don't think it served me as well, I would say, I would say NASA didn't get all the very best out of me, it could have, because there was a lot more of my creative circuits that I would say I kind of shut down and edited out to just fit the mold and, you know, performing the way behave and performing the way that was expected. And so when I got finally the chance to lead a navy unit lead, NOAA, that was the premise, I wanted the chance to really try out and see. And so we set very high expectations. We were crisp and candid with each other about well, that worked or didn't. We, we made that we didn't. I used a lot of we and not you know, I and you, us and them. We are in this together. We are committed to this purpose together. That didn't work. Why didn't it work? Let's think through what can we fix, Trevor? This was yours to do. You've got some ideas. Now you go get it done, go get back on course, fix what you can. But and I was surrounded with a couple of 50 year olds, but a lot of 30 and early 40 year olds, and very different mix of women and African Americans than I had pad around me in the astronaut corps. And they they thrived under that. They absolutely Thrive they blossom. I guarantee the unprofessional woman in particular, grew stronger and blossom more rapidly. Because of the sunlight and water. That was being drizzled on them than they would have if they were just being accosted and challenged all the time.Trevor Brown:
So earlier, you describe that feeling of feeling like you needed to ask, and you know, seek permission before executing that initiative that came later. What have you done as the or have you tried as a leader to try and create that context in which people feel confident to say, Yeah, I've got this, I can take this, Kathy, trust me. What can you do as a leader to try and serve flip that so that people don't feel shell shocked and scared, and like, they got to beg permission for everything?Kathy Sullivan:
I think what you just said of I know, she trust, I know, she believes in me and believes I can do this part one. Part two, really, the thing I think took me the longest to ripen into, was believing in my own standing. Again, that, yeah, but if I, you know, here's this guy who's more senior to me, or, or more seasoned than I am greater longevity, or works in a different division. And if I go over to them and say, you know, I need I need so and so well, why isn't he just gonna say that's your problem? Yeah. But that doesn't have any bearing on what I need to do. You were how to develop that understanding of my own role and standing and really, like deeply own it, and gain progressively gain confidence that I actually could say, Okay, we're doing this, and I need that, I need that. I need that and say, Trevor, I need you to do this. And, and the answer would be Yeah, I got it instead of who the heck are you engaged with those young professional women that I mentioned in the NOAA context, I watched many of them also have to, will also have the opportunity to grow a bit through that. They were, they were going off to pull information and project pieces together in the name of the Administrator of NOAA. And I could watch them have some of the same wrestling match. Well, Kathy, I know if you ask them, they would do it. But I'm just me. Yeah, but you, you are the emissary of this office, you go with the power of this office, you need to know that. And believe that and yeah, you know, if you beat someone who just tells you to buzz off, we have ways to fix that, because that's the wrong answer.Trevor Brown:
Right? Yeah. Let's, let's switch gears a little bit. So you've led in a lot of environments, where you are overseeing or engaged in a sort of technical scientific activity. And then you're providing that information to decision makers, often politically elected officials, even though you at that moment may have been politically appointed, you're still in that more objective control role. And in this current environment, you know, we say it's a fact free world. But we're in a kind of augmented sense of what has always been true in which the nature of technical work in the government as it sits in a political environment, and sometimes you have to pass on or provide information to decision makers that doesn't fit their political calculus. And so I'd love to just hear you talk a little bit about what are the skills and abilities required as a leader in that context to try and engage a political official who either doesn't believe what you know, just doesn't believe it or just doesn't fit their political expectations?Kathy Sullivan:
Well, first, let me point out that this dynamic applies just as much in the corporate world where powerful CEO who doesn't want to hear evidence that this isn't going to work, you know, financially or technically or from a legal point of view. And it will always be a bit dependent on the personalities involved, of course. But, I mean, I think there's no way to get around the fact that it will challenge your courage, and your commitment, your commitment to the integrity of your purpose and the integrity of data and your own ethics, your own moral values. The you know, as you asked that question, Trevor the most, I think both illustrative and to me amusing example I encountered of that was back when I was NOAA chief scientist, president, Bill Clinton was President Al Gore was vice president. And Gore had this idea to launch what may have been sort of the first crowdsourced science program he envisioned kids around the world, taking measurements in their local environment, the wind or the temperature, whatever it might be, and uploading them all, put them in a computer where they would upload into a database, not just to be amused by the collection of kid data, but it's got enough measurements for enough places. There's actually scientific value in the dataTrevor Brown:
We should pause for a minute and point out how bold this is, this is for those on business The 1990s pre iPhone, right?Kathy Sullivan:
Yeah, exactly. I mean, you know, a laptop was still the size and weight of it, at least a hefty briefcase is very small. Okay, so all of that. And I got roped onto the team. Yeah, I had educational background as well at that point, and blah, blah, blah. And so I spent a lot of time working with the his office staff, and other agency people. And here's the quandaries that we came up with, he wants, he envisions children all around the globe, making these measurements and uploading them electronically into a database. And I pointed out to his staff, that there was a dichotomy that had to be resolved here, there was a real either, or; either. We could start out globally, with kids everywhere, in which case in remote parts of Africa, or Asia, some of those kids would be working pencil and paper and maybe nailing or telegraphing the results in. Or you could start digitally, in the places where that was possible. And in either case, you'd be trying to use that starting step as an incentive to the government. So you go digital and get more kids involved. And they kept saying, No, he said, he wants both. So yeah, I know, he said, he wants both. And we will give him both. Like, if not eventually, but not like day one. Nope, he wants both. We got to give them both day one. And we went around that circle. I don't, I don't even know how many times. And you know, my metaphor here, Trevor would be if someone told you walk across the street. And you realize, for some reason it mattered whether you stepped first with your left or right foot, you'd ask them I will get across the street, I will do what you need done. Did does it matter to you if I start left or right foot, right, because I got to start with one otherwise, I'm hopping across the street. And they were just not interested in the which foot first discussion. And until I finally said, Look, I get and I had a presidentially appointed standing, they were his staff, he could quibble over who had rank there. But I finally said, look, look, you guys scheduled a meeting, I'll tell him he can, you know, we can come at me. And at least we'll get some discussion around how to break this quandary. I got a shoot after they're pulled off to some other assignments and never really saw that all the way through. So I don't know how the last internal, they didn't ever need to schedule that meeting, someone must have his staff must have finally settled up and broken, broken the code with him. And he was Gore was not the kind of guy to behead people, I mean, a leader in that position has to have a clear view, kind of like Steve Jobs, you'll get people to suspend disbelief a little bit, push them beyond what you can see something that's possible that they don't see yet. You don't want to give in easily to okay, we'll take whatever you can do. But on the other end, you've got to be listening and looking for some room for Where's there really an issue here that needs to tweak what I had in mind and, and endorse someone on your team to help take that forward? So I I worried for a while that, you know, maybe they ratted me out to the Vice President. I was now persona non grata, but I have this lovely letter on my wall from the Vice President thanking me for my contributions to the program. So apparently, it was all okay.Trevor Brown:
So where's that? Where's that commitment? I've been in lots of organizational settings where there are yes, people, but they just want they don't want to be part of it said that they don't think it's the courage component. But it's also because maybe they lack confidence in the the reality of the world that they operate in, right, it goes back to your 26 year old story. But for you, I get the sense that that sort of inherent understanding of there are limits to what is possible. And I'm going to do everything I can to get to the frontier. But but there's just fundamental limits. Where does that come from? For you?Kathy Sullivan:
I think for me, it comes out of my astronaut experience and training because you know that there's not a lot that's really very arguable and things are moving at 17,500 miles an hour, right? I mean, if someone's, if you're having a pre flight debate, and someone's taking a position that boils down to two plus two is five. Yeah, we're not gonna go forward on the basis, two plus two is five. And in that world, you know, there were two. They're not really rich tools, but two methods commonly used that was kind of sweat that out of anybody you want and one was, if you try, if you really want to go forward with that position, I'm going to put a piece of paper in front of you that you're going to sign your name to the attests that following what you're proposing, we will follow what you propose. And you attest that the crew will come home alive. Yeah. So if you're screwing around basic physics and just playing mind games with someone you know That's a red line that almost anybody will Yeah, I don't want to be the guy that killed people because I was having an argument with Trevor. And the other thing is, as we practice and simulated and trained, instructors would throw things into the computer to mess you up, something would break, something would fail. Plan, you were trying to do the checklist to try and it would never work the way you intended. And they wanted to push both the astronauts and the flight control team, to think all the way through everything they knew and dig even deeper. And you'll learn more and learn how to communicate effectively together. And if something hit in your area, and you kind of must you made a bad call, we would debrief that very unblinkingly afterwards. And the expectation was that you who had muffed it would lead the narrative about what happened and what you missed. You know, what mental error you made or a piece of data you missed and why you made that call. And in retrospect, what you would do now, and so you couldn't duck. And you really couldn't duck? What actually happened here? And what role did I play in it? And what could I have done better? And by the way, your colleagues around would always step up as well and say, Well, okay, I could have helped Trevor better too, because I, I kind of saw that and flopped that, but I didn't. Yeah, I didn't say anything about it. And I should have, so everyone was putting themselves on record of I could have been should have a major contribution to this working properly. And in the case of the story, I told the Vice President, I mean, that was just black and white. That was inarguable that was Cushing, what infrastructure exists in Chad, in Africa, compared to Silicon Valley in California. There are other circumstances where you may be sure something's not gonna work, but it's very, very complex. And maybe it's a mix of physics and finances and other things. And am I so certain that I will go to the mat on this thing. Those are the toughest ones, you've put an ideally, in my mind, ideally, you've got a working environment where you can make your case as strongly as you can, and still say, I may not have everything straight here. But you know, I'm really worried about this. And, and people will not just jump on you and say, If you can't prove it, I don't care. They'll actually engage in the point you're raising and test it with you, and examine it with you. So we can all make the best decision instead of we picked my, we've picked my approach, than Trevor, so I won that point.Trevor Brown:
That's a again, great explanation of high accountability environment, but a really supportive accountability environment, or more team based than death.Kathy Sullivan:
Yeah, you know, if you read the memoirs of people who are flight directors, you know, all men in my era, that that was the climate. In fact, when I, one of my podcast guests recently has been Jerry Griffin, who was really the the influential flight director on Apollo 13. Not the guy you saw in the movie where they centered everything on Gene Krantz, that that was also a team of people working in shifts, not one guy. But Jerry speaks very eloquently about this, continually challenging ourselves to be sure we have the best right ideas, not just pick yours, or pick mine. What's the best right idea here, and really quite selflessly going with the best bright idea, because of the importance of what you were doing.Trevor Brown:
Sounds like wire brushing the idea rather than wire brushing the person.Kathy Sullivan:
That's that's exactly the point. And that's the shift I tried to make as I lead NOAA, we have a problem. But we're gonna all attack and dissect the problem. If you raise the problem to the group, I'm not attacking you. And you might float a suggestion that doesn't hold water, we're not attacking or demeaning you. We're testing the proposition so we can get the best right answer,Trevor Brown:
No, that's great. Well Kathy as we pull this really interesting conversation to close I have two more sort of aspirational, broader questions. And the first is what what drives you to serve, you've been in lots of leadership roles where you're in charge, so to speak, but fundamentally, you're a servant. And, and that comes at great consequences. It costs people all sorts of things, whether it's remuneration or time with family and friends, all those things, but what drives you to serve?Kathy Sullivan:
You know, I, I am motivated by purpose. I'm motivated by a purpose that can, in my judgment, you make a difference to, for me, our planet and the ability of people to live wisely and well on this planet. So the purpose of Understanding this planet and how it works, the purpose of helping other people appreciate that the purpose of providing them information that can help them make better decisions, whether those are business decisions or Little League decisions. The purpose of helping younger people find the joy in learning and find your agency you find all that it gives to them to become a capable, and even eager learner and maintain wide curiosity.Trevor Brown:
So let's you mentioned young people, it's finished with that, let's teleport yourself back to your 26 year old self entering NASA and thinking about you've spent some time in the Glenn college you know, we have young people at various stages of their intellectual and personal growth. What What advice would would you have for them as they venture out of school and then into the world? So what what what guidance would you give them as they enter the world of public service?Unknown Speaker:
A couple of things. Resolve first and foremost that you're going to be a perpetual learner, not just an executor, or performer of work. continually expand your radius to topics to people to communities to places you don't know, you know, if any of us if we keep too tight, a radius around us, like minded friends, you know, like experience people. You know, you're wallowing in a pretty stagnant pool. we all we all know what gets bred and stagnant water, right, bad, bad vectors. So yeah, I think if you if you stuck on those two things, if you looked at every day that you're going to your job not just as an obligation to get the work done, but an opportunity to learn something new, about a topic about another person about how some other party or organization works. Yeah, I think I think you find a couple things there. One is you are actually learning but two is it always we would shift my mindset from a day I have to go do for others or go do to survive, to this is this day where I get something they were I come home with something new, something richer, something I've learned. And the other thing I would say is, you know, you're you're gonna make mistakes, you're gonna things are gonna get messy, that that's the way of life not a reflection on you. So, you know, don't take a mistake or a setback as a moment that's catalyzing new growth, not as a verdict.Trevor Brown:
Well, you are you are the model public servant. But you're also the model of those two admonitions to people, your career and the way you've conducted yourself or you, you walk the talk. So thank thank you for the service. And in this context, thanks for really sharing with us over the years of your experiences all the great lessons, so thanks for the conversation.Kathy Sullivan:
My pleasure, Trevor.