The “Orbital” Governance Perspective: An Astronaut’s Lessons From Space

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Few institutions represent American ingenuity and innovation more clearly than its space program. With rapt attention, the world watched July 20, 1969, as Mission Commander Neil Armstrong of NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft became the first person to walk on the moon.

Ron Garan at NACD Summit

Ron Garan—retired astronaut and chief pilot for commercial space launch provider World View Enterprises Inc.—was one of those who watched. “My most vivid childhood memory was July 20, 1969,” Garan said. “On some level, I realized that we had just become a different species. A species no longer limited to our planet.”

Garan delivered the opening keynote address to an audience of more than 1,300 on Sunday evening in Washington, D.C., at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit, the world’s largest gathering for corporate directors.

Beyond Limitations

Four decades later, Garan’s childhood dream became reality. He had trained with NASA to become an astronaut himself. “That first day in space when I got to take a look at our planet, [I] was absolutely breathless.…What I felt was an incredible sense of gratitude. Being physically detached from the world made me feel closer to the people on it—more interconnected.”

Reflecting on his second space mission, Garan remembers similar feelings of gratitude, but that gratitude was coupled this time with internal struggle. The technological advances that make space flight not just possible but routine offer the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Yet, Garan pointed out, some people on this planet still do not have access to basic resources like clean water.

“These days we’re more connected than ever, and the Internet is the backbone,” said Garan.  “The Internet can be our nerve center, enabling us to solve problems in an entirely different way.”

Collaboration

Garan further explored that challenge in his third mission, when the seeds to a solution began to root. The answer? Collaboration. On this space mission, Garan was weightlessly floating about 100 feet over the International Space Station, attached to the craft’s large robotic arm. That station represents the collaborative innovation of 15 nations—including the United States, Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation, and 11 European nations—that have, at times, been at odds with each other politically and ideologically.

“What would it look like for us to have that kind of collaboration here on the [Earth’s] surface?” Garan asked. “Collaboration doesn’t mean we agree on everything. What it does mean is that we find the things we do agree on so we have a platform to work [from in order] to address the things we don’t agree on.”

Risk: Necessary for Innovation

But innovation and collaboration don’t come without risk. As a highly decorated fighter pilot, Garan had run several missions and trainings in which he’d successfully flown and had no mechanical problems in flight. Then one day, while piloting a jet during a routine takeoff, he heard a loud pop that jolted him. He very quickly realized his engines no longer had any usable thrust. Garan tried to land in a wooded area and quickly realized that he had no need to be in the jet at that point. Seconds before impact, he ejected and his life was spared.

That incident, though life-threatening, did not change Garan’s outlook on life or risk. But the very next day, he was in flight and, because of a mechanical malfunction, had to conduct an emergency landing. After having completed thousands of flights, he’d had emergencies two days in a row. The second day is when the idea of what it means to take risks sunk in.

Before ever entering a plane or spacecraft, one must decide if doing so is worth the risk. The same is true for business leaders who want to innovate and collaborate. When NASA is planning a mission, they consider every possible issue that could go wrong and develop a response plan that’s ready and waiting to be activated. Boards should do the same. Similarly, a great idea on the shelf can only provide value if it’s activated. “Ideas are overrated. There’s got to be a streamlined path to action,” Garan shared.

“Any change involves some level of risk,” Garan said. “Any innovative business strategy must involve risk. Collaboration can help mitigate risk and also provide an engine for growth.”

Implications for Businesses

It’s important for businesses to understand that we don’t live on a globe; globes are just abstract lines on a map, Garan shared. We too often think of the world in terms of it being about business and economy supporting a society that sustains a planet, he said. “Instead, we live on a planet that sustains a society that has built an economy.” Understanding that concept is adopting what Garan calls an “orbital” view.

It’s time that enterprises realized that it’s good business to care about issues like sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR)—beyond just doing it to boost a brand or reputation, Garan shared. Issues like CSR should be part of a company’s DNA now, not just for future generations, he added.

The retired astronaut described how, on his last space mission, his spacecraft entered back into the Earth’s atmosphere and landed on its side. “Now out of my window, I saw a rock, a flower, and a blade of grass. I was home. In Kazakhstan, nonetheless,” he said. “I wasn’t in Houston, where my family was. But I was home and had a different idea of home.”

Thinking of the planet as “home” may be what’s required to actually make one small step for directors and one giant leap for corporate governance.

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