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How Not to Panic and Other Leadership Tips From the Astronaut Who Survived a Seriously Scary Space Walk

“The more you know, the less you fear. The former International Space Station commander offers valuable lessons in how to be a better leader.

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BY Bonnie Burton - 30 Aug 2018

How Not to Panic and Other Leadership Tips From the Astronaut Who Survived a Seriously Scary Space Walk

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Astronauts know a thing or two about taking risks.

After all, it doesn't just take a keen mind to even qualify to go up in space, but as an astronaut you also have to master your emotions and not panic when something does go wrong while floating above the Earth.

That's exactly what happened to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2001 when he conducted what was supposed to be a simple spacewalk to make a repair on the International Space Station, and he ended up having to make the trip blind after an anti-fog mixture of oil and soap from his helmet had gotten into his eyes.

The story became a valuable lesson in how to stay cool in the worst of situations -- whether it's going temporarily blind in space or how to not freeze up during a public presentation.

Because astronauts have plenty of wise words to share, I signed up for Hadfield's online course at to learn more about his experiences in space and how to apply them to challenges I face every day working for myself as a freelance writer and entrepreneur.

"You learn a lot of things on the way to space about yourself; about how to turn yourself into somebody different than you used to be," Hadfield says in his first lesson. "This class is for anyone who is interested in exploring a new idea, and exploring the things you might be capable of."

In 28 video lessons, Hadfield covers everything you need to know about being an astronaut, from rocket science to how to get into a spacesuit. But it's Hadfield's thoughts on leadership qualities that are most applicable to entrepreneurs.

Practice not panicking.

No matter what happens, you have to be calm, ready, and competent. The only way to achieve that is to practice what you will do when things go wrong before they happen.

"You don't want someone who is up there supercharged," Hadfield says. "You want the commander to be as ready and capable to fly that ship as possible. As astronauts, we don't just practice things going right. We practice things going wrong all the time."

Become a generalist.

As an astronaut, Hadfield worked alongside people with different skills than himself -- including medical doctors, physiologists, chemists, and astronomers.

While everyone has their specialty, it's crucial to understand that the perfect astronaut (or entrepreneur for that matter) needs to know a bit of everything to best understand colleagues and their particular perspectives.

"You need to be a generalist," Hadfield says. "You have to know a lot about different things. When you're in a spaceship, there's no one else to ask. You have to be able to look at all the information and decide what to do next without the chance to ask an expert. We are the observers of the world, and we don't want to be incompetent."

Use feedback to find the best leadership technique.

Being part of an international space crew means you are working in a very stressful and dangerous environment. Different kinds of leadership tactics are required, depending on the situation. If your current leadership style isn't working, try something completely different, then get feedback from your team.

"Practice different leadership techniques," Hadfield says. "How do you lead when things are going perfectly? How do you lead when you have a very short amount of time and you've got to get something complicated done? How do you lead when there's a serious emergency?"

During astronaut training, his team would test out different leadership styles from being a stubborn dictator to being more collaborative to see which approach worked best for a variety of problems.

Hadfield discovered that learning interpersonal skills, as well as coping techniques, helped him as a leader to keep his team focused and inspired.


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