Science & Technology

Chris Hadfield’s 5 Tips on Being an Effective Leader

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 12, 2019 • 5 min read

Leadership is a big responsibility—but if you’re commanding the planet’s only space station, it’s vital that you take the responsibility seriously and know how to be an effective leader.



Chris Hadfield Teaches Space ExplorationChris Hadfield Teaches Space Exploration

In 28+ lessons, the former commander of the International Space Station teaches you the science of space exploration and what the future holds.

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What Was Chris Hadfield’s Role on the ISS?

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield served as the commander of the International Space Station from March to May 2013, where he led a crew of five astronauts. Before his work on the ISS, Chris flew in multiple space missions (including two Space Shuttle missions), served as NASA’s director of operations in Russia, was the only Canadian to board the Russian space station Mir, and was the first Canadian to spacewalk.

Chris Hadfield’s 5 Leadership Tips

In Chris’s words, “Leadership is the art of influencing human behavior to accomplish a mission in the manner desired by the leader.” During his time serving as the commander of the International Space Station, Chris learned how to lead his crew. To be a good leader—in outer space or anywhere—he recommends you prepare early, set goals, create relationships, be confident, and learn from bad examples.

1. You Can Never Prepare Too Early

If you know you want to lead a team someday, the best time to start is now. Chris knew when he was young that he wanted to be an astronaut, so at 14 years old he enrolled in Canada’s Air Cadets program, which teaches young people about aviation, weather, and other important details about flying. But the first course Chris took wasn’t about flying—“The first course I ever took with Air Cadets was called the ‘junior leaders course,’” Chris explained. He started studying leadership at 14 years old, because he knew it was something he wanted to do.

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2. Set Goals

As a leader, it’s vital that you set goals for you and your team. Chris explains that he asked himself a series of questions to decide how to achieve success: How can I be a useful leader? How can I do this job as well as possible? What is it we're actually trying to accomplish together? What are the measures of success?

For example, in Chris’s situation, he and his crew came up with the following goals:

  • Stay alive. Working on the ISS is dangerous, and Chris knew that the space station crew’s lives were in his hands. They decided that their most important goal was to not lose a single crew member.
  • Keep the ship healthy. Chris wanted his team to take good care of the ship, but more than that, he wanted to hand a ship over to the next crew that was in better shape than when it was given to them.
  • Get all the science done. Chris knew that the ISS is a science platform, and that NASA was counting on them to perform a huge number of experiments for research work. He wanted to make the environment a productive one so that they could accomplish their research goals, as well.

Chris’s goals are specific to being an astronaut, but setting goals is vital for a leader in any position. In Chris’s words, “If you're gonna lead properly, you have to know what victory looks like.”


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3. Create Strong Relationships

Creating strong relationships with your team members is crucial to being a good leader. You need to build up mutual understanding and mutual respect, so that your crew will trust your decisions and support your leadership, even when things are difficult.

Chris recommends creating strong relationships with your team members even before you become a leader so that you’ve already earned everyone’s respect. Before he became the commander, he looked around at his team members and asked himself questions: How should I be viewed? What type of traits do I need to develop in myself? Which of these people is a great leader? What are they doing that makes them a good leader? How can I modify myself?

4. Be Flexible in Your Leadership Style

Think Like a Pro

In 28+ lessons, the former commander of the International Space Station teaches you the science of space exploration and what the future holds.

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Chris talks about two different kinds of leadership styles: flat command structure and vertical command structure. A flat command structure is when you trust your crew to make good individual decisions, and you don’t need to micromanage their behavior or work. “For an outside observer,” Chris explains, “they might not even be able to pick out who's the commander out of this group.” Chris used a flat command structure during most of his time on the ship—he knew he could count on his team to work well.

The second leadership style Chris describes is vertical command structure. This is when the leader must be in charge, make decisions, and instruct their team. Chris used a vertical command structure when there was a problem with the space station operations—for instance, a fire or an ammonia leak. “On those days the commander is a dictator,” Chris explains.

5. Learn from Bad Examples

While good examples of leaders can help you pinpoint specific characteristics you want to develop, you can also learn lessons from bad examples. “The best teachers I ever had were the bad leaders that I had,” Chris says. “If a leader's doing a nice job, you sort of don't even know that they're there, but when you see bad leadership, you can learn a lot.”

Keep an eye out for bad examples of leadership. When you see someone disrespecting one of their employees, or mismanaging someone who's counting on them, or struggling to accomplish something with a team, you can learn a lot. Take note of the various ways to lead, and what is and isn’t effective.

Want to Learn More About Space Exploration?

Editors Pick

Whether you’re a budding astronautical engineer or simply want to become more informed about the science of space travel, learning about the rich and detailed history of human space flight is essential to understanding how space exploration has advanced. In Chris Hadfield’s MasterClass on space exploration, the former commander of the International Space Station provides invaluable insight into what it takes to explore space and what the future holds for humans in the final frontier. Chris also talks about the science of space travel, life as an astronaut, and how flying in space will forever change the way you think about living on Earth.

Want to learn more about space exploration? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master scientists and astronauts like Chris Hadfield.