The Fundamentals of Teamwork with Astronaut Mike Mullane

Exclusive Interview with: Mike Mullane

From combat reconnaissance missions over the skies of Vietnam and Space Shuttle missions, to climbing some of the highest peaks around the world, Astronaut Mike Mullane knows what teamwork, leadership and safety are all about. His programs, books and DVDs on these topics have educated, inspired and motivated tens of thousands of people from every walk of business and government.

As many organizations introduce pressures on the team – things like production pressure, schedule pressure – people get tempted into shortcutting those best practices and they get away with it.

SPEAKING.COM: Can you describe what people would learn in your safety leadership programs?

MULLANE: In my teamwork safety leadership program, I really develop teamwork fundamentals. I talk about guarding against the normalization of deviance, responsibility, accountability, and courageous self-leadership.

I use the Challenger tragedy to really show how a great team can be victimized by a long-term normalization of deviance. I also discuss personal experiences I had in the Air Force as an air crew member to showcase how critical it is to understand the essence of personal and leadership responsibility and accountability. Finally, I use my life story to develop some very important lessons on courageous self-leadership.

SPEAKING.COM: Can you define normalization of deviance, and give an example?

MULLANE: Briefly, normalization of deviance is getting away with shortcutting best practices in any team metric (safety, quality, customer satisfaction, sales best practices) so frequently, that that action is then normalized into the individual or the team’s behavior. They no longer see it as a shortcut. It’s ops normal to do it that way: to operate in what you should consider a very deviant territory, away from the best practices.

In the end, that leads to predictable surprises, which can be very, very ugly to the team. In the case of teams working in hazardous environments, normalization of deviance can lead to injuries or death. In other industries it can result in loss of customers’ profits, customer satisfaction, reputation, environmental disasters, or increased legislated oversight.

I use the Challenger disaster to develop the dangers of normalization of deviance because that was the result of a world class team, NASA. NASA put people on the moon and returned them safely six times. It was a great team, and yet, incrementally over time, they started shortcutting best practices associated with the operation of the booster rocket. They got away with that shortcut of continuing flight operations in the face of a serious problem with the booster O-rings so often that that deviance became the team norm. That led, of course, to the predictable surprise of Challenger, and the death of seven astronauts.

I use that as a gateway to really delve into what normalization of deviance is and how dangerous it is. From the story of the Challenger, I develop lessons to help teams guard themselves against this phenomenon. Certainly one of the most important things to take away from this discussion on normalization of deviance is that everybody can fall victim to shortcutting best practices. If it can happen to NASA, it can happen to anybody.

It’s very important then, that we all retain a sense of vulnerability, so that we can avoid falling victim to shortcutting these best practices and letting deviance become our norms at an individual level or at a team level.

Another lesson we learned from Challenger is the primacy of the priority of safety, quality, and then everything else. Everything else includes those most sacred cows in the corporate world: budgets, schedules, profits, production, etc. They have to come after safety and quality.

It’s been my experience in talking to organizations that most of them understand the primacy of safety and quality first to achieve everything else. You can’t achieve the other important things by which the team is measured, and by which individual performance is measured, unless safety and quality come first and second.

However as many organizations introduce pressures on the team – things like production pressure, schedule pressure – people get tempted into shortcutting those best practices and they get away with it. Slowly, over time, everything else becomes more important and safety and quality get shoved downstream. Nobody’s aware of that because it is a normalizing process. People see their actions as normal; they don’t see them as deviant, and yet the reality is they’re no longer holding true to the primacy of that priority of safety, quality, and everything else.

It’s important then to make sure that leaders set challenging but attainable goals. Certainly, with the shuttle program, some unattainable goals were present such as trying to expand the launch rate, and that put the team under tremendous pressure and contributed to the shortcutting.

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think I counted…My inaction though almost got us killed.

SPEAKING.COM: From your experience as an astronaut and all the work you have done in the past, what have you learned about responsibility and accountability?

MULLANE: I’ve learned a great deal about the topics of individual and leadership responsibility and accountability. I introduce my discussion of this by relating a story in which I was an aircrew member on a fighter jet. We were doing some supersonic weapons testing. We got to a point where we were supposed to go home, but the pilot wanted to finish the weapons test and he continued past a pre-calculated go-home fuel state.

At that moment a warning flashed in my brain because I had concerns about his action since it went against the best practice. But we continued, and as a result we ended up botching a first landing attempt. Not having enough fuel for a following landing attempt, we had to eject from the jet. It was a very low altitude ejection and we almost got killed, plus a perfectly good plane was lost.

The message I want listeners to take away from that story is that if you see something, you say something and do something. At that moment in the flight when the pilot continued, even though I had doubts about his decision, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think I counted. It was my first flight in that particular type of airplane. He was the aircraft commander and I was the flight test engineer. He had hundreds of flying hours in the plane and I only had 30 minutes of flying time in it. My inaction though almost got us killed.

In a team operation we’re all in it together; we have a peer-to-peer responsibility to watch out for each other, and that applies to all teams – not just teams that are operating in hazardous environments. The team cannot succeed unless we maintain that attitude that we take each other’s backs, watch out for each other, and do it across functional lines within the organization too. It’s not just about taking care of your desk-mate across the aisle – it’s about watching out for everybody. We cooperate and constantly try to help each other because truly we are all in it together.

That brings up another critical lesson: we all count. In any circumstance we count. The power of a team, in fact, is vested in the reality that we are all unique. We see things differently, we come up with different ideas, different perspectives, and when we don’t speak up and put that perspective out there for the team and leadership to consider, it could have a significant and negative impact on a team. On the contrary, if we do put it out there, it could have a significant, positive impact on it. We might be seeing something, or have an idea that’s not replicated in anybody else’s view.

Part of leadership’s responsibility, is to make sure everybody counts in word and deed. Leaders need to constantly convey the message that “I value you as an individual, I want to climb into your brain, take a look around, don’t assume I know everything, don’t assume that somebody else on the team knows everything or sees everything. I don’t want any passengers on my team; I want everybody contributing. I want every perspective on the table, so I can lead this team to be the best and safest they can be.”

I think that’s a critical responsibility of leadership.

Genius is way overrated and tenacity counts a lot more.

SPEAKING.COM: What is courageous self-leadership and how can others develop courageous self-leadership?

MULLANE: Courageous self-leadership is taking the attitude of continual self-improvement, of never camping out in a comfort zone and never letting a team camp out in a comfort zone. It includes constantly challenging ourselves and our teams to go to the next level, not just safety wise, but in all team metrics. Courageous self-leaders say “Hey, let’s celebrate here, we did a great job, but now we’re going to the next level, and the next after that.” They learn from these incremental accomplishments to achieve greater and greater things.”

The “courageous” part of courageous self-leadership involves having the guts to do this. It’s not easy and many people can’t do it. They don’t have that type of courage. But I think everybody can develop it as far as believing in themselves and setting those goals – to challenge themselves to go to the next level, and of course to do it for your teams. If you can lead yourself to higher goals, you can certainly lead your teams to higher goals.

I use my life story as an example of the power of incremental challenge and incremental self-improvement. Many people assume because I’m an astronaut that I was born lavishly gifted, had incredible talents, was a genius child, and it was a piece of cake for me to become an astronaut. However, I show some slides and video from my youth to show how ordinary I was. I wasn’t exceptional; I wasn’t a genius child. In fact, I couldn’t even get into the Air Force Academy. I was a fairly ordinary teenager and child, and yet I became an astronaut.

The reason that happened is because I was doggedly tenacious in the pursuit of self-improvement, of challenging myself to the next goal. It was a discipline that I learned from my parents. My dad was crippled with polio when he was 33 years old; he never walked again. He was on crutches and in a wheelchair the rest of his life. At that point my parents had six kids, and you can imagine the difficulties they faced in raising six kids with the primary breadwinner in a wheelchair in 1955, a time in America when impaired people were not highly valued.

This could have led to a very ugly situation but it didn’t because my parents were courageous self-leaders. They stayed focused on their mission of raising this family. They worked around the obstacles that polio put in front of them as best as possible, learned, and continued on to achieve their objective of raising this family.

I was 10 years old when all of this was going on, but I realize now I was imprinted with my parents’ behavior, with their actions, and it carried over into my life. I wasn’t born a genius. I’ve been around a lot of genius people in my business and I wasn’t one of them. Yet I could compete because I would devote my whole focus and attention to achieving a goal, and then from the lessons learned there, I would inch the bar higher and do it again and again and again. Along the way I was able to get through West Point, which was an incredibly difficult four years, but I graduated from the US Military Academy there.

I then was flying in fighter jets. If you saw Top Gun think of Maverick and Goose. I was a Goose behind the backseat of these fighters. While in the back of the phantom fighter I had a legendary case of air sickness. I almost quit, which probably would have been the end of my dream of being an astronaut. But I hung in there and eventually my body acclimated and became very comfortable riding in those things. So, I learned an important lesson there and that is tenacity. I think genius is way overrated and tenacity counts a lot more.

We’re better than we think we are and so are the people we lead for that matter. No matter what we’ve accomplished, we are better, we can go further, and we can take our teams further. People who recognize that really achieve true greatness.

Everything we’re doing is going to count in our futures, so we need to make sure we’re always doing our best.

SPEAKING.COM: Many children dream of becoming an astronaut, but you actually realized that dream. What are some of the things you did to realize this difficult to reach goal?

MULLANE: To answer this question, I need to tell you about my own journey. I was 12 years old when Sputnik was launched in 1957, the first pair of satellite which started the space race, so I was growing up in that and I rapidly knew from reading about these early astronauts in Life magazine, that I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to go up and be an astronaut.

I had the good fortune to be growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the time. There’s a vast desert right outside my door, so I could indulge myself in home made rocketry. We didn’t have the model rockets back then and I realize now that what I was doing with these things was very dangerous, and I’m lucky to have gotten out of that with my body intact. But I had a great opportunity to indulge my interest in rocketry.

In those days you had to be a pilot first to become an astronaut, but I couldn’t be a pilot because my eyesight was too poor. I guess I could’ve quit right there, but I didn’t. I said, “Okay, I’m going to get as close as I can: a goose in a fighter. Instead of being a pilot, I’ll take the back seat.” So, I was able to get into that. I knew I was going to need an advanced education along the way, so I got myself a Masters degree in aeronautical engineering. I went to “the back seaters’ test pilot school,” a test pilot school that has a flight test engineer course.

I got into testing aircraft and weapons at Eglin Air Force Base; it was this instrumental accomplishment along the way that gave me a competitive edge when they announced that they were selecting astronauts for the shuttle program. I put in an application and was blessed to be selected in the first group of Space Shuttle astronauts. The Shuttle had a new crew position called mission specialist: people who operate robot arms, do space walks and experiments, and things like that. You didn’t have to be a pilot with perfect eyesight to be a mission specialist astronaut on the Space Shuttle.

There’s a strong, powerful lesson in the story. Along that way, I did my best at everything. I always was doing my best. I tell people that nobody can ask for more and you should never accept less from yourself. I was doing my best, thinking it wasn’t going to count toward being an astronaut, only to find out that it all counted. What I want people to realize then is that everything we’re doing is going to count in our futures, so we need to make sure we’re always doing our best.

To bring Astronaut Mike Mullane to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at:

©, published on June 17, 2018

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