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The Hero’s Burden: How NASA Lives the Hero Identity and the Challenge of Leadership

Rich Phillips
Rich Phillips
April 29, 2024
5 min read

Over the last year, I have written about the eight Leadership Identity Archetypes and have discussed The Hero as one of those archetypes. Leadership is a choice. Your Leadership Identity doesn’t choose your organization, your organization, through your communication strategy and your culture dictates what type of leader you will become or strive to be. But I’ve yet to really dive deep into the Hero Identity and why it is one of the most difficult leadership positions to maintain. The following article makes the case that becoming a heroic organization carries with it a unique burden.

In the aftermath of World War II, the world entered a period of geopolitical tension known as the Cold War, primarily between the United States and the Soviet Union. This era was marked by fierce competition not only in terms of nuclear armament but also in technological and scientific achievements, including space exploration. The Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a startling event, underscoring a significant technological achievement that posed potential security threats signifying Soviet leadership in space technology. This catalyzed the United States to respond not just with incremental steps but with a bold institutional commitment: the creation of NASA in 1958.

The establishment of NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration under the National Aeronautics and Space Act was not merely a reaction to Sputnik; it was a visionary move to consolidate and expand U.S. efforts in space exploration. The Act outlined NASA's role clearly: to pioneer space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautic research. This encompassed not only human space travel but also robotic missions, satellite technology, and data gathering about Earth and other celestial bodies. NASA's purpose was defined as one of peaceful exploration in space that would benefit all humanity, showcasing the agency’s foundational ethos of broad, altruistic pursuit of knowledge.

From the Apollo moon landings to the Space Shuttle program, and now the Artemis program aiming to return humans to the Moon and then on to Mars, NASA's history is a testament to its enduring legacy of exploration and discovery.

The Success of the Gemini Program

The Gemini program, which ran from 1961 to 1966, was critical in establishing NASA's leadership in space. Positioned between the pioneering Mercury flights and the ambitious Apollo moon landings, Gemini aimed to test and perfect the technologies and procedures needed for future lunar missions. The program's successes in spacewalking, long-duration flights, rendezvous, and docking operations directly enabled the achievements of the Apollo missions.

The Gemini missions were not just technological endeavors but also strategic moves in NASA's leadership narrative, showcasing American ingenuity and capability at a time when Cold War rivalry underscored every achievement in space. Each successful mission, broadcast to millions around the world, was a public relations triumph and a step toward positioning NASA as a leader in space exploration, capable of achieving high-stakes goals through innovation and teamwork.

Project Mercury, which preceded Gemini, saw several technical failures, and launch aborts that could have cast doubt on NASA's capabilities. While not catastrophic, these failures highlighted the inherent risks of space travel and set a critical backdrop against which the Gemini missions were viewed.

Heroism in Myth and Modern Media

In the realm of Marvel Studios and DC Comics, characters such as Batman, Superman, and the Avengers embody heroic qualities. They are champions of justice, often putting themselves at great personal risk to protect society. However, these characters frequently face criticism and public skepticism. Batman, for instance, operates in a way that some citizens of Gotham view as vigilante justice, too often taking the law into his own hands. Superman, while a symbol of hope and virtue, is also seen as an alien with too much power, potentially threatening governmental structures and human autonomy. Similarly, the Avengers are celebrated when they save cities or even the planet, but the collateral damage associated with their battles leads to public outcry and political repercussions, as depicted in story arcs like “Civil War,” where the accountability of superheroes becomes a central theme.

Like the Avengers, whose battles often result in significant collateral damage, NASA's failures, such as the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, bring to light the high stakes and human costs of space exploration. These events lead to public scrutiny and demand for accountability, much as the "Civil War" storyline in Marvel Comics questions the unchecked power and consequences of superhero actions.

As with comic book heroes, NASA’s public image can fluctuate dramatically. Heroic successes such as the Moon landings bring universal acclaim, while failures or disasters can swing the public's perception towards viewing NASA as a potentially reckless entity, momentarily losing sight of its noble aspirations in the wake of tragedy.

This superhero metaphor highlights the inherent complexity in NASA’s role. Just as superheroes navigate the fine line between being revered protectors and controversial figures, NASA moves between being a symbol of human achievement and a focal point for debates about the implications of its missions. The organization, thus, embodies the Hero Identity archetype, reflecting both the highest aspirations and the profound challenges of undertaking such monumental tasks. This challenge is called the Hero’s Burden.

The Hero’s Burden and the Dual Edge of Heroic Leadership

The archetype of the Hero in leadership is profoundly dualistic, characterized by both adulation and critique. This pattern holds true whether discussing legendary figures in mythology, superheroes in popular culture, or prominent institutions like NASA. The Hero's journey is seldom smooth or universally applauded; it is fraught with challenges, and every action or inaction is heavily scrutinized and often criticized.

NASA, as a heroic organization, experiences this duality intensely. Its achievements, such as landing humans on the Moon, launching the Hubble Space Telescope, and deploying the Mars Rovers, have garnered widespread admiration and have been pivotal in positioning the United States as a leader in space exploration. These accomplishments align with the Hero archetype's traits: bold, pioneering, and transformative, inspiring awe and pride.

However, NASA's failures, such as the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, have provoked intense public scrutiny and criticism. Each incident led to broad investigations, questioning NASA's practices and decision-making processes. The stakes are incredibly high—any misstep can lead to loss of life and significant setbacks to its mission, thus attracting scrutiny comparable to the condemnation sometimes faced by comic book heroes.

In essence, the “Hero's Burden” encapsulates the complex interplay of high expectations, responsibility, risk of significant consequences, intense scrutiny, and the ongoing challenge of maintaining public trust and legitimacy. This burden shapes the hero's journey, making it a path of profound triumphs and formidable challenges, always watched, and often judged by the very people they aim to inspire and protect.

The Nature of Heroic Identity

This nature of the Hero identity—to be both celebrated and censured—is intrinsic to its definition. Heroes are placed on a pedestal, expected to perform flawlessly under immense pressure and to achieve what no one else can. When they succeed, they are lauded; when they falter, the fall can be precipitous, leading to intense examination and doubt.

For NASA, embracing the Hero identity means accepting that while its missions can push human knowledge and capabilities forward in unprecedented ways, each failure will be met with significant public and political reaction. This scrutiny is not just a challenge but also a testament to the crucial role that NASA plays in global advancement. It underscores the agency's continued relevance and the high expectations placed upon it by the world.

Thus, the Hero archetype, while offering immense potential for inspiration and change, also inherently invites a high degree of accountability and criticism. Organizations like NASA, by adopting this archetype, recognize that their journey will be one of incredible peaks and daunting valleys, reflecting complex narratives. This acceptance is not a deterrent but rather a powerful component of their identity, driving them to push boundaries while continually evolving and adapting in response to both their successes and their setbacks.

These various elements of NASA’s history and operations underscore its heroic identity—a leadership that is marked by visionary goals, resilience in the face of adversity, and profound impacts that reach far beyond the confines of its direct operations. Through these endeavors, NASA continues to lead, inspire, and embody the Hero archetype in the landscape of global science and exploration.

Living the Hero Leadership Identity: Six Attributes to Success

Leadership identity refers to the distinct set of characteristics, values, and behaviors that define an organization's approach to organizational leadership. It is the collective identity of a company's leadership team that shapes the organization's culture, vision, and reputation. Your organization’s leadership identity can directly influence performance, including your ability to attract and retain employees, achieve strategic objectives, and build strong relationships with stakeholders.

A strong leadership identity is built on a shared vision, values, and mission that are consistently communicated. Owning and investing in your leadership identity can lead to several benefits, including the ability to efficiently communicate your position, influence standards and trends, accelerate growth, and motivate your employees.

Bold Narratives has developed The Leadership Identity Framework, a new blueprint that can help organizations establish a stronger presence in the market by aligning their leadership identity with their goals and culture. The framework identifies eight distinct leadership identities that govern an organization's potential influence and role in the world.

Eight leadership identity archetypes are pictured including the Builder, the Disruptor, the Hero, the Pragmatist, the Servant, the Scientist, the Sorcerer, and the Visionary.
One of the eight leadership identity archetypes is The Hero. Heroic organizations are those that have overcome significant challenges, demonstrate courage, and achieve outstanding achievements that inspire admiration and respect. Heroism in business is not just about financial success or market dominance; it's about how a company operates and its impact on society.

Heroic organizations and companies are those that embody the values of courage, perseverance, and excellence. They demonstrate these qualities in the face of adversity, using their ingenuity and creativity to overcome obstacles and achieve great things. Heroic companies can be found in a variety of industries, from technology and finance to healthcare and energy.

Heroic organizations are defined by six attributes that set them apart from other leadership archetypes. These include:

  1. Purpose: A clear vision of their goals and objectives, which guides their actions and decisions.
  2. Perseverance: A willingness to persevere in the face of adversity, refusing to give up even when the going gets tough.
  3. Innovation: Using their creativity and ingenuity to solve problems and overcome obstacles.
  4. Impact: A positive impact on society, making a difference in the lives of their customers, employees, and communities.
  5. Community-Focused: Dedicated to nurturing and prioritizing the welfare, values, and needs of the wider community in its endeavors.
  6. Ethics: Operating with integrity, upholding ethical standards, and doing what is right even when it is difficult.

Purpose: “For the Benefit of All”

The core purpose of NASA is eloquently summarized in its vision statement: “To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.” This purpose has been echoed by NASA leaders across decades. For instance, during the Apollo era, President John F. Kennedy famously rallied the nation with his bold declaration: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...” This speech encapsulated NASA’s drive to lead, inspire, and unify through ambitious goals.

NASA's commitment to exploration has always extended beyond the immediate glamour of manned spaceflight. The construction of the International Space Station (ISS), in collaboration with multiple countries, epitomizes this broader vision. The ISS has served as a symbol of international cooperation in space and as a microgravity laboratory where scientific research is conducted to benefit humanity in numerous ways, from understanding human health in space to innovations in water purification and pharmaceuticals.

The agency’s ventures into robotic missions and satellite explorations further illustrate its expansive purpose. NASA has deployed numerous satellites and probes that monitor Earth’s climate, study other planets, and even exit our solar system, providing critical data that inform our understanding of the cosmos and our place within it.

Perseverance: Triumph Through Trials

NASA's journey has been anything but smooth. It has faced numerous challenges, from tragic setbacks like the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster to technical and budgetary hurdles. Through it all, NASA has displayed remarkable resilience. Jim Bridenstine, a recent NASA Administrator, emphasized this attribute when he noted, “NASA is about perseverance. It’s about willing to take a risk and move forward. And when we fail, we get up, and we try again.”

NASA’s history is replete with examples of perseverance, notably in its robotic and satellite missions. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, initially suffered from a major defect in its primary mirror. However, NASA’s commitment to fixing the issue through a high-stakes servicing mission underscored its resolve to not only overcome technical challenges but also to push forward the frontiers of astronomical research. Similarly, the James Webb Space Telescope, which faced numerous delays and budget overruns, represents a monumental achievement in space observatories, expected to unravel mysteries of the universe from the very first galaxies after the Big Bang to detailed atmospheric studies of exoplanets.

Innovation: Pioneering Uncharted Territories

Innovation is deeply ingrained in the fabric of NASA, serving as the core engine that drives its missions and scientific advancements. Since its inception, NASA has stood at the forefront of technological innovation, developing solutions that have not only advanced space exploration but also benefited industries and societies worldwide.

The Apollo program’s challenge to land men on the Moon led to a plethora of technological innovations. The development of the Saturn V rocket remains a benchmark in rocket engineering. The software development led by Margaret Hamilton for the Apollo missions was revolutionary, introducing robust, error-resistant software that could handle multiple tasks and recover swiftly from unexpected problems.

Innovations in robotics and autonomous navigation have been critical in the Mars Exploration Rover missions. Each rover built and sent to Mars, from Sojourner to the more recent Perseverance rover, has been equipped with increasingly sophisticated instruments and capabilities. For instance, Perseverance carries an experiment to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which could pave the way for future human settlements. Moreover, its autonomous navigation system allows it to travel further each Martian day than any previous rover, deciding independently how to safely navigate the Martian terrain.

As noted by Administrator Bill Nelson , these milestones are not just feats of engineering and science but are also the results of “thinking outside the box.” This innovative mindset is crucial for tackling the complexities of space exploration, where conventional solutions often fall short. The challenges faced in space—extreme temperatures, radiation, vacuum, and remoteness—demand that engineers and scientists invent entirely new solutions or radically adapt existing technologies.

Impact: Beyond the Bounds of Earth

NASA’s technological contributions are vast and varied, influencing sectors from manufacturing and transportation to information technology and agriculture. For instance, the development of satellite technology by NASA has been instrumental in advancing global communications, weather forecasting, and geographical mapping. These satellites support not just scientific endeavors but are crucial for the operation of television broadcasting, mobile communications, and vital navigation systems like the GPS. The economic impact here is enormous, facilitating global commerce and helping manage and mitigate disasters through improved weather forecasting and emergency response.

Moreover, NASA’s research into lightweight and durable materials for spacecraft has found applications in commercial products such as scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam, and even improved household appliances, which enhance consumer satisfaction and drive economic activity in these sectors.

The commercial space sector, including satellite services, space tourism, and private space exploration initiatives, owes its existence in part to technologies and infrastructures originally developed by NASA. Moreover, industries such as drone technology and autonomous vehicles also benefit from advancements in robotics and sensors developed for space exploration.

Beyond the economic, the cultural impact of NASA’s endeavors in deep space observation should not be understated. Telescopes like Hubble and JWST do more than just observe the stars; they change our place in the universe in the cultural imagination. By pushing the limits of our knowledge and confronting us with the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, NASA helps to shape our understanding of humanity's place in the universe, fostering a sense of global unity and responsibility.

Community-Focused: Engaging with the World

NASA’s role in fostering a global community is also evident in its numerous international collaborations. Projects like the International Space Station (ISS) are prime examples of this global partnership. The ISS, a joint venture among five space agencies (NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA), not only serves as a space environment research laboratory but also as a symbol of international peace and collaboration. Through such partnerships, NASA not only amplifies its scientific and exploratory capabilities but also strengthens ties with other nations, promoting a shared sense of purpose in space exploration.

By collaborating with aerospace industries and even sectors not directly related to space, such as agriculture and healthcare, NASA drives innovation and technology transfer. These partnerships often lead to the development of new technologies that can have wide-ranging applications beyond aerospace, including improving crop yields through satellite monitoring and enhancing medical device technology.

NASA places a strong emphasis on outreach to communities that are traditionally underserved and underrepresented in the sciences. Through specific initiatives aimed at these groups, NASA not only seeks to inspire future scientists and engineers but also to ensure that the benefits of space exploration are shared widely. Programs such as Girls Who Code at NASA highlight this commitment. These initiatives are crucial for building a more inclusive community that can contribute to and benefit from NASA’s work.

Through its extensive educational programs, international collaborations, and partnerships across various economic sectors, NASA demonstrates a profound commitment to community engagement. This approach not only helps in building a global network of space enthusiasts and experts but also ensures that space exploration remains a shared and inclusive endeavor. By reaching out to underserved and underrepresented groups, NASA not only enriches its own research and development capabilities but also inspires a more diverse generation of leaders in STEM fields.

Ethics: Guiding the Path Forward

For NASA and other heroic organizations, ethical leadership is not merely a supplementary concern but a foundational one. It involves a careful balance of advancing scientific frontiers, safeguarding human and environmental health, and ensuring that the benefits of their endeavors are distributed justly. This balance of mission and ethical behavior is crucial, not just for maintaining legitimacy and trust, but for ensuring that the pursuit of knowledge remains a benevolent and sustainable venture.

One of the most significant areas where NASA’s ethical commitments are visible is in its planetary protection policies. These policies aim to prevent biological contamination of both the Earth and other celestial bodies. Such contamination could irreversibly harm extraterrestrial ecosystems or compromise future scientific research. NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection plays a critical role here, ensuring that all space exploration missions comply with international treaties and agreements designed to preserve the integrity of other planets and moons.

Despite its commitments, NASA, like any large entity, faces ethical challenges, particularly given its dependence on political mandates and funding. Balancing scientific ambitions with budget constraints and political directives requires a nuanced approach to ensure that ethical standards are not compromised for expediency or political gains.

A Hero’s Journey

As the space economy evolves, NASA’s role as The Hero is more relevant than ever. It continues to set the agenda and provide strategic direction for global space exploration efforts. Through its inspiring mission, resilience, innovative breakthroughs, and impactful collaborations, NASA not only pursues its exploration goals but also uplifts humanity, embodying the true spirit of a heroic leader.

By embracing the Hero archetype, NASA has exemplified leadership attributes that transcend mere exploratory achievements. These attributes—purpose, perseverance, innovation, impact, community focus, and ethics—collectively frame NASA's role as not just an agency, but a beacon of heroic leadership. Each attribute contributes to its overarching identity, from the ambitious pursuit of knowledge for humanity's benefit to the unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of what is scientifically and technologically possible.

NASA's journey as a Hero is marked by spectacular successes and formidable challenges, reflecting the profound responsibility that accompanies its mission. This duality underscores a crucial lesson: any organization or company that chooses to adopt the Hero archetype embraces a path of potential unparalleled growth and leadership on a global stage. However, this path is also laden with the Hero's Burden, characterized by the high stakes of monumental expectations and the scrutiny that follows. This choice, while daunting, offers a unique opportunity to lead, inspire, and make a lasting impact on the world.

As a proud board member of Explore Mars Inc., I hope you will join me at the Humans to Mars Summit 2024 from May 7th and 8th at George Washington University in Washington DC. This year’s summit is a pivotal gathering for advancing human space exploration. Discussions will explore viable mission architectures, address technological and workforce challenges, and examine the integration of government and commercial efforts to support humankind's mission to live and work beyond Earth. The summit will also evaluate the feasibility of a manned Mars mission by 2033, the benefits of Mars-related R&D for Earth, and strategies to protect astronaut health. Highlights include networking receptions, Mars Day on the Hill, exclusive tours, and expert-led workshops. Don’t miss your chance to be part of shaping the future of our presence in the solar system. Register now at and become part of the heroic story of human exploration.