5 Traits CEO and Astronauts (Yes, Astronauts) Share

As NASA begins the recruiting process for its next class of astronauts, our experts compare the “right stuff” needed in both outer space and the C-suite. 

The boardroom isn’t exactly the final frontier. But getting there requires many of the same leadership qualities landing on Mars does. Or so it might seem.

Which brings us to a news item that’s picking up some attention: NASA is recruiting its next class of astronauts. It’s true that both business leaders and astronauts need—to quote the famous movie—the “Right Stuff.” But what exactly is that, and what do business and the moonshot world share? “The traits and mindsets are quite similar,” says Kevin Cashman, global co-leader of CEO and enterprise leader development at Korn Ferry.

To be sure, the bravery required to go to space, with its life-threatening risks, is on a whole different level. But NASA’s efforts to break the old archetypes mirror a similar post-pandemic leadership transition in the corporate world. What’s still essential for space travel are technical and scientific expertise, physical capabilities, and education and training. Yet leadership traits and drivers have evolved since the last time NASA put out a call for astronaut candidates (coincidentally, in the pandemic year of 2020). Such traits as teamwork, social skills, and emotional intelligence are being called out alongside spacewalking and robotics skills. 

Here are a few other leadership traits our experts say are as relevant for astronauts in deep space as they are for CEOs here on Earth. 

They have a vision for the mission.

For both astronauts and business leaders, it’s critical to have a clear sense of what you are trying to achieve, how you are going to achieve it, and what role others can play, says Dennis Baltzley, global head of leadership development solutions at Korn Ferry. A vision for the mission combines a deep belief in one’s personal leadership with an “unquestioning trust in the ability of the team” to achieve it. 

They have a shared purpose.

While a certain amount of self-determination and relentlessness is required to make it to the top of any profession, leaders today also recognize the importance of a collaborative mindset and shared purpose. Astronauts and CEOs have to be dedicated team players and believe deeply in the mission, say experts.

They’re adaptable in the face of uncertainty. 

Astronauts are literally going into the unknown, so they have to be prepared for anything. Over the last few years, the business environment hasn’t been any more certain. “When conditions are constantly changing, leaders have to be able to constantly adapt,” says Tamara Rodman, a senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. 

They have a drive for innovation.

Whether it’s the desire to explore new planets or develop a new product, both astronauts and business leaders share an innovation mindset, say experts. They look at an issue from all angles; they test and experiment with different solutions. That kind of open-mindedness and curiosity is atypical for most leaders, which is why many firms struggle with innovation. 

They have courage under fire.

Nothing ever goes according to plan—in space or in business. The ability of leaders to manage risk and make decisions under pressure is more critical today than ever before, says Alma Derricks, a senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. “Staying calm and poised in stressful situations or in the face of failure is what separates successful leaders from the rest,” she says.  


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Leadership and Professional Development capabilities.