What’s the secret to propelling your career into the stratosphere? You might ask alumnus Tim Kopra ’13, a real-life NASA astronaut who, needless to say, takes #careergoals to a whole new level.
Last month, members of the Columbia Business School community did just that during an exclusive Q&A session with Commander Kopra, who was livestreamed by NASA directly from the International Space Station some 220 miles above the Earth. More than 250 students, alumni, faculty members, and friends crowded into Uris 301 for the broadcast, while hundreds more tuned in online. The livestream was also broadcast to all NY TechDay attendees at the Columbia Business School booth. A select group headed to a microphone at the front of the lecture hall and lobbed questions to Kopra as he floated before their eyes in zero gravity.
A prevailing line of questioning centered on leadership.
“Leadership is a continual learning process — we are always learning, whether it’s in a business scenario or here on [the] Space Station,” Kopra said. “One of the things the MBA did for me was reaffirm that.”
He added that as a leader of a team, based on his experience as commander onboard, “it’s very, very important to listen and be flexible in your thinking” to get buy-in from other team members. “Your own opinion or your own approach may change. Or maybe sometimes it’s not appropriate to incorporate theirs, but making sure people are included in the process is important.”
Kopra went on to explain that even when he was a young aviator in the US Army flying a small Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter, he always thought about his individual decisions in the context of the overarching team. “The decisions I made affected all the people I flew with,” he said. “There’s always going to be a balance between individual decisions and the team aspect.”
In fact, it is this team-oriented mindset that is the biggest similarity between being a successful astronaut and being a successful executive, he added. “A spaceflight is completely a team sport. We have six people up here, but we have an army of people on the ground dedicated to this. Big things take a team. There’s no sole person who’s making this happen.”
Professor Mark Cohen, who preceded the livestream with a brief lecture and moderated the event, underscored this point, stressing that while “leadership is an exceedingly complex concept” it can be broadly defined as a behavior that encourages achievements that could not be accomplished by a single individual alone. Professor Cohen added that this leadership behavior ultimately entails just three things: acknowledgement (“of everything around you”), assessment of the situation, and action. “The idea of leadership has to resonate from top to bottom,” he added.
Leadership that’s felt throughout an organization can only happen when each team member is a “leader” in his own right, taking ownership of his own work and being “individually competent in our tasks,” Kopra said. “As a business leader, having the required skills such that people respect you is very vital.”
Waxing philosophical, one Columbia community member asked Kopra whether his perception of the world has changed after seeing it from a distance “without borders.” From space, Kopra responded, one can get a “very physical sense” of how interconnected the world is: he can see the globe being crisscrossed by networks of interlocking roads and watch ships traveling from one port to another, he said. Here on Earth, Kopra added, “business is one tremendous way that we are able to experience some of that interconnection and have some common bonds.”
Kopra returns to Earth in June, after completing a six-month mission in space. This marks his second voyage to the International Space Station.
— Agatha Bordonaro