Former Astronaut Scott Parazynski Discusses Leadership Under Pressure at General Assembly

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Former Astronaut Dr. Scott Parazynski addresses the crowd at General Assembly.

We recently hosted former astronaut, Mt. Everest climber, Emergency Medicine doctor, and entrepreneur, Scott Parazynski, at our NYC headquarters for a talk about leadership under pressure. The discussion was moderated by Jillian Bellovary, who studies black holes as a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History.

Parazynski captivated the crowd with his daring tales of  space missions, mountaineering adventures, and even how he met his wife. At the crux of these stories were battle-tested tips for managing risk, assembling an excellent team, and learning from failure.

“What is it with you and not having oxygen,” Bellovary asked the former astronaut to a round of laughter from the crowd. (Parazynski is also a scuba diver, and an oxygen tank was required for his ascent to Mt. Everest).

“I like to go into challenging environments and master them by managing risk,” Parazynski responded humbly.

Managing risk – and taking risks in the first place – is crucial to being a leader, he said. Parazynski started the talk, which you can watch online, by saying that everyone needs to be a leader at some point, regardless of their job.

From being a doctor to an astronaut to a climber and an inventor/entrepreneur, the common thread for Parazynski has been leadership. What makes a good leader? The answer, he says, is largely the ability to create an excellent team.

“I try to surround myself with people who are not like me,” he said, and he emphasized the importance of having a team composed of people with diverse perspectives and skill sets. “You also want people who are not just there for a paycheck,” he said.

During one particularly harrowing experience on a space mission, in which he risked running out of oxygen and being electrocuted in order to repair a damaged solar panel (a “MacGyver moment” he called it), Parazynski said he relied on his training and on his team – including engineers he had never met. This operation – to unexpectedly repair a damaged solar panel during a 2007 mission – is regarded as one of the most dangerous ever performed because Parazynski had to venture out farther from the safety of his airlock than any other astronaut had previously.

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Parazynski explains how stayed calm during a particularly harrowing “MacGyver Moment” during a mission.

“Sometimes you have to accept a little more risk for a higher reward,” he said of this high-pressure, life-threatening “MacGyver Moment.” And he later explained that the accomplishments he cherishes most are those he had to work the hardest for.

Very few human beings have seen Earth from space and Parazynski said that it is a profound experience. Inspired by the beauty of the planet Earth, many astronauts become environmentalists, he said. But for Parazynski, what struck him was that he could see the point of Mt. Everest from space. And it made him think, “it would be really cool to stand up there one day.”

If you haven’t gotten the impression already, Parazynski acts on his dreams. After rigorous training and assembling an excellent team, Parazynski scaled the tallest mountain on earth. However, when he had almost reached the top, he developed severe back pain that wouldn’t subside. He had a difficult decision to make: keep climbing to reach the point that he had seen from millions of miles away in space. Or turn back down to avoid putting himself and his team at risk?

While he could see the top of the mountain, he decided not to continue. Given his unrelenting pain, if he could no longer move, he would have jeopardized his own life and the lives of his team members who would have tried to save him.

“I’m not a daredevil,” he said and explained that while it’s important to take risks, there are also variables within one’s control.

The nadir of Parazynski’s career as an astronaut was the disintegration of the Columbia spacecraft in 2003. The disaster killed all seven crew members, who were his colleagues and friends.

He considered hanging up his spacesuit after that, but then thought that he was serving a greater good by continuing space research and exploration. So he continued for six more years as an astronaut and made his last mission in 2007. He officially retired from being an astronaut in 2009.

The audience listening as Parazynski offers his tips for staying cool under pressure.

During and after Parazynski’s career as an astronaut, he has served on a number of boards of privates companies that develop medical or space technology. How do these leadership roles differ from the leadership required to be an astronaut?

Not much, he said. In both cases, having a strong, diverse team that respects one another is paramount. Not panicking and maintaining a positive attitude is important, too.

Parazynski is also an inventor and entrepreneur. Since finishing his 17 years as an astronaut, he has invented a family of devices to reduce the mess when brewing tea. Sounds pretty tame for him! He also founded a company that developed thermal enclosures for consumer products, like safes.

With such a varied career exploring the human body, the earth, and outer space, Parazynski’s current job title is particularly apt. He is “University Explorer” at Arizona State University’s School of Earth & Space Exploration. There, he contributes to the university’s space initiatives and develops medical partnerships with other institutions.

His wife, Meenaskshi Wadhwa, also works for Arizona State University as Director of the Center for Meteorite Studies. Wadhwa, who was at the discussion at General Assembly, met Parazynski when he needed to get approval from her department to bring a moon rock with him on his trek up Mt. Everest. The romance later developed on Facebook.

Since Parazynski has never been a one-job man, the moderator asked him “What’s next?”

“My bucket list has never been more full,” he said.

He wants to go to Mars, particularly with the recent discovery that there is likely liquid water flowing there. He would also really like to visit Europa. No, not Europe. Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons.

The talk drew a diverse crowd of entreprenuers, scienctists, and business leaders.

Parazynski is also interested in learning more about people with disabilities who have developed other heightened senses to compensate for their disability. He mentioned Erik Weihenmayer, for instance, who is blind and successfully climbed Mt. Everest.

Parazynski, who is an Eagle Scout, recalled his boyhood days first as a Cub Scout, then a Boy Scout, and finally an Eagle Scout – one merit badge at a time. He used that steady focus required to become an eagle scout as an analogy for breaking down big goals into bite-sized pieces.

Given the risk that Parazynski has taken on throughout his life, which has placed him in near-death situations, one audience member asked him what his relationship was to faith.

“I’m not an especially spiritual person,” he said, “but I have faith in my team.”

Meet Dr. Scott in person! Enter to win a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston with a VIP tour of mission control lead by Parazynski himself! 

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