Accurately evaluate the current situation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.” To me, this means we need to make an accurate assessment based on the most accurate data possible of the current situation (or crisis). Again, not focusing on what was or what might be. The focus needs to be kept on what actually is. In spaceflight this is referred to as “determining our state vector”. It is where we are and the direction we are heading.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing former NASA astronaut and former Air Force Fighter Pilot, Col. Ron Garan.
Col. Ron Garan is a highly decorated NASA astronaut, fighter pilot, former Commercial Spaceflight executive, and active social entrepreneur who believes that appropriately designed and targeted social enterprise can solve many of the problems facing our world. Ron spent 178 days in space and traveled more than 71 million miles during 2,842 orbits of our planet. He flew on both the US Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, where he accomplished four spacewalks. Ron is releasing his next book Floating in Darkness: A Journey of Evolution on May 4, 2021, as the follow up to his critically acclaimed first book The Orbital Perspective. Floating in Darkness is a true story of how a combat fighter pilot and astronaut’s life journey illuminates a path toward understanding the meaning of life and our place in the universe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was really inspired by the first moon landing in 1969. I was a small child and, although I wouldn’t have been able to put it these words at the time, I knew at some level that we had just become a different species — a species no longer confined to our planet. I found myself floating on a sea of possibility and an insatiable drive to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo 11 astronauts was born in me that night.
I grew up in Yonkers, NY and attended public school. In high school I was not the greatest student, primarily due to disruptions in family life but also because I lacked direction in my life. When it came time to start mapping out my future it seemed like we didn’t have a space program. This was during the time after the Skylab program ended and before the space shuttle program started. It didn’t make any sense to pursue becoming an astronaut if we didn’t have a space program. I did end up getting accepted to college — by the skin of my teeth. I went to college in upstate New York and was a business major because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and pursuing a business degree seemed the most practical.
During my sophomore year of college, the first space shuttle launched to space.
I distinctly remember looking out the window of my dorm room out into the night sky in upstate NY and thinking about John Young and Bob Crippen orbiting Earth on Space Shuttle Columbia on that first mission. That was a second calling, that dream that happened in 1969 was reawakened. Then, the very next day I marched into my academic advisor’s office and asked how I could start taking math and science courses as electives. I ended up graduating from college with a degree in business economics, marching down to a bunch of local banks and asked, “How much would you lend me to pursue a second bachelor’s degree?” The best answer was $5,000. So, I loaded up my broken-down Fiat spider that I affectionately called the ‘Flintstone Mobile’ because the floorboards were rusted out and I could see the road beneath my feet and drove to Daytona Beach, FL and enrolled in Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. My plan was to stay there until I ether got an engineering degree, which was a long shot because I was basically starting over; or ran out of money; or got accepted as a pilot into the Air Force. Luckily for me, I ran out of money about the same time that I got accepted into the Air Force.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Throughout my career, I’ve experienced some really rare things that very few people get to experience. I’ve lived on the bottom of the ocean for three weeks in Aquarius the world’s only undersea laboratory. I’ve flown in space both on the US Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz. I’ve lived six months in space, and I’ve done four spacewalks. I’ve ejected from an F16 less than a second before I would have died, and I fought in combat. All of these things have provided me a very unique perspective of our planet.
The common thread in all of these experiences is the power of awe and wonder: the awe and wonder of flying a supersonic jet fighter, the awe and wonder of looking at our planet from space, the awe and wonder of living on the bottom of the ocean in a beautiful coral reef. I believe that starting from a foundation of awe and wonder changes everything. It is the “secret sauce” that opens the mind to new ideas, connections, and creative solutions. I use the magic of awe and wonder to inspire,encourage, and motivate people and organizations through my work today. Having been a member of several high-performing teams in business, combat, during high-risk test flights, spaceflights, and in dealing with life-or-death aircraft emergencies, I have unique insights on how to turn stress into performance. Through speaking engagements and my books, I take those lessons and provide perspective and strategies for people and organizations facing tough challenges.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
During my second operational tour flying the F-16, I was selected to attend the Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School — the Air Force’s equivalent of the Navy Top Gun School. After graduating from the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, I was assigned to the 17th Tactical Squadron in South Carolina, an expeditionary squadron that was part of the rapid deployment force, designed to deploy anywhere in the world to counter aggression. As a recent Weapons School graduate, it was my responsibility to ensure that the squadron was ready to go to war — that we had the right tactics and that everybody was trained effectively. A few days after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait we were in the Persian Gulf area to prevent him from rolling any further south into Saudi Arabia and then eventually we helped liberate Kuwait. After that, I was selected to be an instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School and also attended the US Naval Test Pilot School and worked for a number of years as a test pilot until I was selected by NASA to become an astronaut.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I think the most interesting story was what happened the day after I ejected from an F16. On that day as I was taking off, I had another engine malfunction where I thought I might have to eject again. Up until that point I had thousands of takeoffs and landings and nothing had ever happened. In this case I had a series of malfunctions that meant that not only would the jet not stay in the air but also it was handling very unpredictably. In spite of that. I was able to bring this one back for a safe landing. I believe that second incident, in as many days, was a critical inflection point in my flying career. I think the ejection the day before was a wakeup call that I hit the snooze button on. But, I was given another wakeup call the next day. Those two life threatening incidents in two days made me really think about my flying and a risk-benefit tradeoff started to emerge. After that second incident, I started to look at risk as something that you have to pay to achieve a benefit. Instead of just blindly charging into a dangerous situation not knowing what I would do if everything went south, I would first determine how I could extract myself if something did go wrong. I think that mindset carried me through many dangerous periods of my life from fighting in combat, flying in space, performing space walks, and living on the bottom of the ocean. Although those were all very dangerous situations, I had a new calculus. I had a new risk mitigation strategy that developed. Risk mitigation strategy is something that I talk extensively about a in my public speaking.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
There are many stories that I could share from my experience in combat. Stories of the heroism of my colleagues and squadron mates. To me a hero is somebody who can overcome their fear. It’s somebody who acts in spite of their fear and does so in a selfless way. A really good example of this is a friend of mine named Bill Andrews. Bill was leading a four ship of F-16s on a close air support mission. He and his wingmen were supporting the US Army’s advance into Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. As he was flying his mission, I was about 30 miles away leading my own four-ship in our own close support mission against tanks that were engaging the US Army’s 7th Corp. At one point in Bill Andrews’ mission, he was shot down by a surface-to-air missile and as he was floating down in the parachute, the Iraqis were shooting at him with antiaircraft artillery and small arms fire. They were shooting at him as he was coming down right in the midst of whole bunch of very angry Iraqi Republican Guard troops. As he hit the ground his leg shattered. He sustained a compound fracture, and a bone was sticking out of the bottom of his leg. He was in completely flat terrain with nowhere to hide as dozens of Iraqi troops approached him, took some shots at him, took a few more steps and fired some more. Eventually he realized that his only option was to surrender, and he put his radio and gun down and put his hands up in the air. The Iraqi soldiers approached until they were right on top of him. Then another surface-to-air missile was launched at one of his wingmen. In response Bill lowered his hands, reached down, picked up his radio, and said, “Break left! Flares!” This was a command to his wingman to let him know that a missile was coming at him and that he needed to defend himself. That action resulted in a bunch of gunfire all around him. Having achieved what he needed to do to save the life of his wingman he dropped the radio and was then roughed up badly. After he was captured and spent time as a POW he was eventually repatriated after the war ended.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
To me, Bill Andrews is a perfect example of a hero. Wounded and in the midst of the most harrowing moment of his life, with all those Iraqis pointing guns at him, with complete disregard for his own personal safety he acted to protect his wingman. It was a selfless act. An act that required that Bill overcome his fear. That is the definition of a hero.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
My experience in the military definitely helped prepare me for business and leadership situations. In the military you’re expected to have a certain level of discipline especially self-discipline which is required both in business and in leadership in general. Also required is a certain level of attention to detail and an appreciation and knack for strategy and tactics. Also important is knowing the difference between strategy and tactics. But I think the biggest thing that the military taught me is that there’s something more important than myself. The mission is more important than my own personal inconveniences or comforts or wishes. To be an effective leader we need to take on the role of a servant leader. The purpose of leadership is to serve the people under one’s command. Leaders are responsible for their subordinate’s well-being, their development, and to help them become the best people they can be. In doing so, leaders help others optimize their performance and achieve their potential. The role of a true leader is to help everyone reach their potential in the context of the team’s mission. In the case of a business this can be thought of as in the context of the mission statement of the company.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
No one is ever successful completely on their own. I’m certainly an example of that. There have been dozens or maybe even hundreds of people along the way that had a profound influence on the trajectory of my life. I would not have been able to achieve what I have without them. Obviously, the people who are closest to us have the most impact. My family, particularly my wife and her support along the way were critical factors in success. But it has been many different people along the way that have helped. The key takeaway is that we have to be open for that assistance. To some extent, this requires that we overcome our own pride or ego which enables us to accept assistance.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
To me, a crisis is a situation where something important is at stake. Taken to the extreme, it is where life is as is at stake, either your own life or the lives of others. But a crisis could also mean that your business is at stake or your career is at stake or your reputation. It basically means that something is at stake with life-or-death implications. Whether that’s true literally or it involves the life-or-death of your business, career, reputation etc. To function in such a crisis is first and foremost to put your focus on what you have control over at this moment in time. During any crisis situation we will have a finite bandwidth — a finite number of things that we can deal with at any one particular moment. If our bandwidth is being used up by thinking or worrying about or trying to deal with things that we actually don’t have any control over then we’re distracting our focus from the things that we do have control over. Also, it is only at the point of action where we can make any change. The only place and time where we can do anything is right here and right now. Many people put an unnecessary focus on the past or expend energy on worrying about the future. We can’t do anything about the past and the only relation that we have with the future is in what planning we do at this very moment. Planning is important but planning and worrying are two different things. Effective planning includes trying to determine every possible thing that can go wrong and then develop remedies to overcome those challenges that you can execute at a moment’s notice.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
In everyday life and certainly during a crisis the most important thing is perspective. Perspective changes everything. A good way to start to build a good foundation toward a proper perspective is to start with the foundation of gratitude. Think about all the things that you should be grateful for in this moment. Then determine what actual problems do you have right now at this second. Normally what we perceive as current problems are not problems at all. They are potential problems that might happen sometime in the future. Focusing on what might happen versus what actually is happening can be a debilitating input into our perspective. When we start building our perspective from a foundation of gratitude and appreciation this enables us to overcome that tendency to project negative things into the future — things that don’t exist right now and may never exist. It helps us avoid putting undo focus, stress, and pressure on ourselves. In any challenging situation the first thing you should do is take stock of this moment in time right and ask yourself, what do I have to be thankful for? What do I actually have control over right now? What problems actually exist right now? Answering these questions will lift a great deal of stress, reluctance to act, and self-doubt from us. It helps us reduce the negative and self-defeating thoughts that can arise in challenging situations. This perspective also enables us to start to plan. To plan during a crisis first we need to focus on what we need to do in the next 5 minutes, then the next hour, then the rest of the day, and rest of the week. If you still have the bandwidth available, you could then start to think even longer term. Basically, the strategy is once you survive all the closest alligators to your boat, you can begin to extend your planning from short term to long term. A crucial part of that planning process is to determine desired outcomes and ultimate goals.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
A critical characteristic is the ability to determine what’s important at any given moment. This needs to be balanced with an ability to set bold yet achievable long-term goals and the incremental steps needed to get to that long term goal. If we only set a long-term goal, then basically we just built an overwhelming mountain without any idea how to climb that mountain. Not only do we need to build the mountain, we also need to carve out the path to get up the mountain, one step at a time. This characteristic allows folks to realize that everything doesn’t need to be accomplished all at once.
Another thing to think about is crises are seldom events that only affect an individual. They usually involve other people and part of the tool set needed to navigate those crises is a certain level of empathy which leads to altruism. Overcoming crises is a team sport.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
There’s is not a single incident that stands out but rather a trend. Any setback, challenge, or failure is a valuable gift. They are powerful opportunities for growth and improvement. Growth comes with some discomfort and pain and it is in darkness where the greatest growth occurs. A seed grows in the darkness of the ground to become a bountiful fruit bearing tree. It is in the darkness of sleep that our minds are rejuvenated and refreshed. And it is in the darkness of the womb that a fetus grows into a sentient creature capable of pondering infinity and the meaning of life. I have made a point in all the dark times of my life to pull the right lessons out and allow growth to occur. In hindsight it has been through the darkest times that the most growth has occurred.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations?
- Accurately evaluate the current situation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.” To me, this means we need to make an accurate assessment based on the most accurate data possible of the current situation (or crisis). Again, not focusing on what was or what might be. The focus needs to be kept on what actually is. In spaceflight this is referred to as “determining our state vector”. It is where we are and the direction we are heading.
- Determine a long-range goal. In spaceflight this is referred to as our “target”. Step one was determining where we are (understanding the true nature of the crisis), in this step-2 we are determining where we want to go (the point outside of the crisis we want to arrive at).
- Take initial steps to change your trajectory from where it is currently and toward the desired target. In spaceflight we call this a “course correction” where we make an initial change in our “state vector” to put us on the correct course toward our target
- Evaluate the change in trajectory that resulted from the course correction in step 4 and ensure you are heading toward your target.
- Repeat steps 1–4 as necessary until you reach your target and are out of the crisis.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
A movement that encourages as many people as possible to transcend individual and collective ego and tear down the illusion of separation. Each of us is more than a life we are life itself. The notion of belonging to one human family is larger than the physicality of DNA. We are interconnected and interdependent on a much deeper, fundamental, and important foundation. All the problems we face, and all suffering can be found in the gap between who we are and who we think we are. A movement that reduces that gap would do the most amount of good.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would like to have a private meal with all of the current world leaders. I would like to get them all in a room and let them know how ridiculous we all look from space. I would like to have a conversation with them about how all the things we quarrel over, all those things that we think are so important, fade into insignificance when we zoom out to the bigger picture. I would like to share with them the unifying indescribably beauty that remains after we shed our frivolous and misguided pursuits. I would like to share with them the miraculous unlimited potential of the human species when we figure out how to set aside our difference and for the first time truly work together as a planetary civilization.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me on Twitter @Astro_Ron, join me on Facebook at /RonGaran, connect with me on LinkedIn, and follow me on Instagram at astro.rongaran. For more information on my new book Floating in Darkness and what else I am up to, you can also go to RonGaran.com.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.