My personal best leadership experience took place when I was the System Manager of my High School Aerospace Scholars team the summer before my senior year. In this experience, myself and 47 others stayed overnight for a week at a hotel near NASA, working 14 hour days each day for 7 days straight. It was a harrowing and exhausting experience for everybody involved, but I believe it functioned as a very effective crash course in leadership.
Going into the week, I felt very intimidated by all the other people who had been chosen to participate. They all seemed to know a lot more about aerospace and care a lot more about it than I did–I was just there for the internship credit. I was even more intimidated when, on the second day when it was time to assign team roles, I was nominated and elected to be the team leader. I wasn’t sure how to go about it at first, as I had never really had experience leading a 12-person team like this. The week was absolutely packed full of intensive assignments and there were multiple deadlines to meet each day. It was a major challenge to divide up all the work to be done at once–three people working on one project, two on another, two on yet another, to the point where the team was working on 5 different projects at one time. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be telling everybody else what to do when I myself didn’t even know how to do most of what I was telling them to do. Along with all of this, everybody was exhausted and sleep deprived by the third day and it grew very hard to keep the team members motivated. To counteract this, I tried to make sure everybody was still enjoying their own assignment, and I made frequent rounds to all the different projects being worked on, helping where I could while still talking and joking to keep the experience enjoyable.
The first lesson that I learned was that I couldn’t try too hard to be everybody’s friend. This is not to say that I couldn’t be nice to people and treat them with respect. However, when people began to pull me aside to ask whether I really cared whether the lander was perfect or if I didn’t mind if they just put half effort into it, I had to be firm in my insistence that they put full effort into it for the rest of the team’s sake. The program we were involved in was a competition, and every member of the team wanted to win, so I felt that I owed it to the rest of the team to hold all members of the team to an equally high standard and refuse to make exceptions for people who were my friends.
The next important lesson I learned was that I had to treat my team members like human beings rather than tools for me to use. When delegating work, I could not regulate every aspect of what each team member did and expect them to produce results that exactly matched what I imagined. Instead, I had to allow them some of their own creative freedom so they could do their part of the project the way they wanted to. This gave the team members more motivation to do their work because they actually enjoyed what they were doing more. It also led to some more creative and innovative solutions to problems that I had never considered.
I learned that the relationship between a leader and his team can be mutually beneficial–not only does the leader provide guidance and motivation for the team, but the team can provide assurance and support for the leader. When I was unsure of which route to choose or overwhelmed with the amount of remaining assignments to complete, my teammates were there to support me and help however they could.
By the end of the week, perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that when leading a team, the end does not always justify the means. Leaders can do what they think they must to win, but sometimes it is more important to stay true to themselves and the people who chose them to lead by keeping their own values in mind. During this week at NASA, for example, the main goal of everybody there was really just to learn and have fun. Though there was a competitive aspect to it, it was not worth making the entire experience less enjoyable just to win the competition. My team members chose me to lead them because they thought I would be able to give them the best chance to win the competition, but they were all ultimately more focused on how educational the experience was. For this reason, I learned by the end how to be a less overbearing and more understanding leader that my team members highly approved of.