Former NASA Administrator Tells LEAD Cohort to Be Role Models

Charles Bolden advised the junior military officers in the GW LEAD master’s program to instill in the men and women under their charge the importance of doing the right thing.

Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden addresses the GW cohort of the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Master of Arts program. (William Atkins/GW Today)
April 14, 2017

By T. Kevin Walker

In this time of frayed and uneasy international relations, former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the 58-year-old space exploration agency is proof that nations that differ culturally and politically can, quite literally, coexist.

“Despite everything that goes on down here on Earth, we have people from other countries living and working together [on the International Space Station],” said Mr. Bolden, who noted the space station has never been without at least one American and one Russian inhabitant.

NASA’s capacity to serve as an “instrument of soft power” was a recurring theme Tuesday evening as Mr. Bolden gave the latest LEAD Distinguished Speaker Series lecture in the Marvin Center Amphitheater. Cohorts of highly-qualified junior military officers have been matriculating through the Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Master of Arts program at George Washington University since 2014, when the university was chosen, after a competitive selection process, by the U.S. Navy to facilitate LEAD in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. After completing the academically rigorous yearlong program, LEAD graduates spend two years as company officers at the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) before continuing their careers in the Navy and Marine Corps.

The LEAD program at GW was just awarded the new LEAD contract, its second from the U.S. Navy. The new contract, awarded after competition among area universities, is for about $1.5 million through 2021. The LEAD program will offer 33 credit hours instead of the current 45. Clay Warren, the Chauncey M. Depew Professor of Communication and professor of organizational sciences, will continue to serve as director of the LEAD program.

Mr. Bolden, a 1968 USNA graduate, directed much of his remarks to the current LEAD cohort of 15 that will graduate next month, frequently reminding them how vital it is to be good role models for the young people who will soon be under their charge.

“It is your job to instill upon your midshipmen the critical importance of doing the right thing, which means treating people the way that they would like to be treated and demanding no less of themselves,” he said.

While growing up in segregated Columbia, S.C., Mr. Bolden’s educator parents constantly told their two sons to “know your stuff; know yourself; and do the right thing.” Mr. Bolden carried that admonition with him when he headed to the Naval Academy at age 17. After graduation, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps and two years later became a naval aviator, flying more than 100 Vietnam War combat missions. Mr. Bolden would go on to spend 14 years as a NASA astronaut, logging more than 680 hours in space during his four shuttle missions.

In 2009, five years after he retired from the Marine Corps as a major general after 36 years of service, President Barack Obama chose Mr. Bolden to head NASA. He served as the agency’s administrator for more than seven years. For five of those years, NASA was ranked the best place to work in the federal government in its category of large agencies. Many credit Mr. Bolden for that feat. He credits a “bottom up” approach that emboldens and empowers everyone.

“One of your primary roles as a leader is to enable your troops to see themselves in the missions, to own it, to take it as their own and to provide a welcoming seat at the planning table,” he said.

Mr. Bolden, the first African-American to serve as NASA administrator on a permanent basis, said strong leaders must also possess an “innate commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

“There is just no way we can build the strongest teams of tomorrow if all the viewpoints and talents we need are not brought to the table,” he said. “Race, creed, politics, gender, geographic and economic backgrounds, sexual orientation­—none of that matters to today’s successful teams.”

Although his impressive résumé suggests otherwise, Mr. Bolden admitted that self-doubt shadowed him at every stage of his career. In fact, he never would have applied to the astronaut program had fellow South Carolinian Ronald McNair not convinced him it was “dumb” to allow fear of rejection to prevent him from even trying. (Dr. McNair later died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.)  Mr. Bolden told the LEAD cohort that they would have to allay the fears of their team to get the very best results out of them.

“Look your midshipmen square in the eye and convince them they should be an eternal optimist, that they should believe in themselves and can do anything they want to do,” he said.

Dr. Warren recruited Mr. Bolden to give the lecture. Dr. Warren was also in the USNA Class of ’68. He first met Mr. Bolden when the future astronaut asked him for his vote for plebe class president. Mr. Bolden won Dr. Warren’s vote and won the election.

Dr. Warren said Mr. Bolden exemplifies the exceptionalism of the Class of ‘68, which had the highest Naval Academy attrition rate since WWII, with only 836 of the 1,347 midshipmen who entered the academy making it to graduation day four years later.  

“This group of survivors, however, included a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a secretary of the Navy, two chiefs of naval operations, a commandant of the Marine Corps, a U.S. senator, a NASA administrator, as well as a number of other important leaders,” said Dr. Warren, who also heads the GWU Communication program.

Dr. Warren has now turned to his esteemed 1968 classmates for all of the LEAD lectures. Former Joint Chiefs Chair Mike Mullen addressed the 2016 cohort, and Dennis Blair, former U.S. director of National Intelligence, spoke to the inaugural cohort in 2015.


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