As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bart Barthelemy, Founding Director of the Wright Brothers Institute and the President of the Collaborative Innovation Institute. Dr. Barthelemy was the National Director of the National Aerospace Plane Program, where he reported to the White House and was responsible for the development of the nation’s hypersonic aerospace plane. While a member of the Federal Senior Executive Service, he served as the Technical Director of the Air Force Wright Aeronautical Laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the Air Force’s largest research and development complex. He has been a consultant to a variety of aerospace industry companies and federal government organizations, including Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, the Department of Defense and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Bart was also a Visiting Scientist at the Software Engineering Institute and Carnegie Mellon University and Adjunct Professor at the University of Dayton. Bart’s educational background includes a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from MIT, Master of Science in Nuclear Engineering and Physics from MIT, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Nuclear Physics/Mechanical Engineering from The Ohio State University. Bart published High Performance, a book on high performance technology leadership in 1985, and The Sky Is Not The Limit: Breakthrough Leadership, St. Lucie Press, a book on breakthrough leadership in 1993 and Collaborative Innovation, a book on the future of innovation, Balboa Press in 2020.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career as a rocket scientist and nuclear physicist with degrees from MIT. When I entered the United State Air Force, I was assigned to the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. My first few years with the Air Force were as a scientist, but I was promoted to a manager when I was about 25 years old. From there, I had greater and greater leadership roles and responsibilities and became an Executive Director of the Laboratory in 1984 (44 years old). In that position, I managed and directed over 10,000 S&Es to develop high-end technology for the Air Force. I retired from the Air Force in 1995 (55 years old) and started several companies and a non-profit called the Wright Brothers Institute (WBI). Now in 2021 (80 years old), I still have the position of Founding Director at WBI and work every day on innovation and collaboration projects.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I became a manager in the Air Force, I wanted to impress my group on our first team meeting. I prepared a long speech and put every word on prompt cards. I was nervous and I essentially read the cards to the group. They were not impressed and asked me to put down the cards and speak to them directly. It was more embarrassing than funny, but that experience taught me a great lesson, “If you are a leader, speak to your team from the heart”. To this day, I remember that lesson and it is one of my five “take aways” for future leaders, “Speak from your heart and be transparent to your team”.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have had many great mentors, but my first was the actual inventor of the jet engine, Dr. Hans JP von Ohain, who emigrated to the United States from Germany after World War 2. I luckily got assigned to his team and he mentored me for three years. He was a wonderful, kind, and brilliant scientist and we would have long talks about many things. He taught me another of my five lessons for future leaders, “Be curious in all things”. Curiosity has guided my life and career; I always want to know more about my team members and the challenges that we face as a team”.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The mission of the Air Force Research Laboratory, which I led, was to develop the best Air Force technology and systems to always have an advantage over our enemies. When I founded the Wright Brothers Institute, our purpose was to be an innovation thought leader, recognized throughout the world. We are that, written up in Harvard Business Review and others, as such. Another of the five lessons for future leaders, “Always have a clear and measurable goal for your team and make it a challenge with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)”. If you do that, you will challenge your team and that will lead to great achievements.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Actually, I really look forward to leading teams through great uncertainty and difficult times. When you’re out of money or support, your team must achieve or else. Challenge is a leader’s best friend because it motivates the team. If you don’t have one, find a real stretch goal that exceeds your highest expectations. I believe this is another of the five lessons for future leaders, “Be bold, grab adversity by the neck and lead your team to great achievements”. Your team might push back initially, but when you work hard as a team to achieve that bold goal, it really brings the team together to collaborate, innovate and stretch their capabilities.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Sometimes in the middle of the night, I dream about all the challenges that I and my organization is facing. But when I wake up, I realize that it is just a negative dream and begin thinking positively again. My guess is that everyone sometimes has these negative goals, surely some of the members of my team. So, I must embrace them as real people who I should (and do) love. Another of my five lessons for future leaders is “Bring humanity, respect and empathy to your team”.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It seems trite to say this but “Be a leader”. We are all willing to follow a good leader, but sometimes a leader forgets this and tries to please his/her team and just be one of the team. Be a leader means just that, lead them to great things and they will follow.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Again, be a leader in every way and follow the five principles that we have discussed. In these uncertain and confusing times, with all the changes in technology and business, being a leader using the five principles will work. I just wrote a book, “Collaborative Innovation” published by Balboa Press, that goes into more detail on what teams can do to be collaborative and innovative in the future.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest, hear them out, be empathetic, give them purpose and lead them out of the difficulty.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is unpredictable in detail, but predictable in general. What served us as leaders, team members, students and specialists will not be the same in the future. We need to reeducate, learn, develop, and become what the future needs. Leaders who understand this and set out to “upskill” themselves and their teams for the future will succeed. Those that don’t will fail.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
“Leading in the Future is not for Sissies: Be Open, Be Curious, Be Bold!”
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Here’s four that I believe are mistakes: Keep doing what they have been doing, only focusing on incremental solutions, playing it safe, and not telling it like it is.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Those are all tactical goals; the leaders of the future must be strategic and brave. It has taken me time to recognize this, but I now know that these are the only ways for leaders to really thrive in the new economy and an increasingly complex world.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
I have already shared these with examples, but to restate:
Speak from your Heart,
Be Curious about Everything,
but with Humanity!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Carpe Diem. Always, every day, forever. Having lived in the business world for 60 of my 80 years, I still say this when I awake to get me going.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I have just written a book, “Collaborative Innovation”, published by Balboa Press in 2020. They can purchase it from Balboa directly in either electronic or book form or through Amazon in book form ($11.95). If they can’t afford the book, let me know and I will send them a copy.