27 Apr 2015

“A Unique Leadership Experience”

A 1 million-foot view of the lessons of GMP
Re: Sunil Gupta
by April White


Dressed in cargo shorts and a black Harvard Business School t-shirt, Terry Virts (GMP 11) addressed the current General Management Program students via videoconference in the Spangler Auditorium. As Virts answered the first question, he lazily twisted upside down, until he was standing on the ceiling in the low-gravity atmosphere of the International Space Station.

For the last five months, Virts, an astronaut with NASA since 2000, has served as the commander on the International Space Station, working with a crew of five to conduct maintenance and undertake a host of scientific experiments; his mission ends in May. The GMP program, was “the best commander training I had,” he told the assembled crowd from some 220 miles above the Earth. Behind Virts, the sun reflected off the space station’s solar arrays, visible through two round portals.

Professor Sunil Gupta, chair of the GMP program, led the 30-minute discussion, posing executives’ questions about leadership and the business opportunities of commercial space travel—and about everyday life in space. Virts, who posts images of the earth on Instagram and Twitter from his lofty perch, described the experience of his first space walk—“To see the sunrise…I saw colors I had just never seen before”—and his nightly ritual of watching thunderstorms over Central Africa from the space station’s observation cupola. The lightening is so bright, Virts said, “you can watch the modules of the space station just lighting up. It looks like someone is taking pictures outside.”

He called the command of the International Space Station “a unique leadership experience”—not because the team is floating in outer space, but because he is charged with leading an international group of astronauts, many of whom are older than him and have more experience on the space station. “You have to adapt your leadership for the situation you are in,” Virts said, which sometimes means “get out of the way.”

He also offered advice to the son of one GMP student, who aspires to be an astronaut: “Find out what your gifts are and pursue that with all your passion,” he said, before floating out of the frame.

Photo by NASA

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