What Leaders Can Learn from the Life of Sally Ride July 24 2012

Sally Ride, the United States’ first woman astronaut, died too soon this week at the age of 61.  In 2012, it’s perhaps easy to forget what she was up against when she rode into space on the shuttle Challenger in 1983. As the New York Times pointed out in its obituary of Ride, the comedian Johnny Carson joked on the Tonight Show that Ride would probably delay the shuttle launch while looking for a purse to match her shoes. It wasn’t funny then or now.

Ride was a woman and a person to be taken seriously. She was smart, determined and not one to allow biases to hold her back. In obvious and not so obvious ways, she was a pioneering role model of a leader. A close read of the Times’ obit on Ride yields a number of lessons for leaders from her life.

Here are three that I noticed:

See Yourself in the Role: Ride became an astronaut after responding to a recruiting ad she read when she was a student at Stanford. With degrees in physics, astrophysics and English, Ride recalled that she read the qualifications from NASA and said, “I’m one of those people.” It didn’t matter that she didn’t fit the gender stereotype (or, for that matter, the age expectations – when she flew at age 32 she was also the youngest U.S. astronaut in space). One of the core challenges for leaders is to confidently see themselves in the role. Ride did that and more.

Stay Flexible: After being accepted into the astronaut corps, Ride switched her academic focus from physics to engineering because she thought that would have more application in her new profession. She went on to help develop the space shuttle’s robotic arm and was chosen for the Challenger crew by its commander in part because of her proficiency with the device. Leaders consistently face changing requirements to achieve the goal. The successful ones stay flexible and adapt to the situation.

Seek the Full Story: Ride was the only person to serve on the investigative boards for both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters. She balanced her love for the space program and loyalty to NASA with tough questions during the hearings and support for witnesses who had the courage to say what went wrong and why. It can be tough for leaders to get the full story because people often tell them what they think they want to hear. Sally Ride didn’t settle for anything less than the full story.

What leadership qualities do you admire the most from the life of Sally Ride?

21 Responses to “What Leaders Can Learn from the Life of Sally Ride”

  1. Jack Peppard says:

    Very good post. Great observations. I have a friend that bemoans the chant of the crowd as SR took off for the first time – Ride Sally Ride (Mustang Sally). I like that chant. Thanks.

    • Scott Eblin says:

      Hi Jack

      Yes, in addition to all of her amazing accomplishments, Sally Ride undoubtedly had one of the greatest matches between a name and a profession in history.



  2. @sguditus says:

    Well written – wonderful lessons from a woman whose life was an inspiration to so many.

  3. Roland Lundy says:

    Can i post your blog on Sally on our company twitter account??


  4. @Rey_Carr says:

    Thanks for providing these observations. Dr. Ride was an inspiration and role model, and I learned much from her desire to give to others. I know the readers of our online magazine would benefit from your observations. Any chance we could reprint your blog post in our magazine? We'd provide appropriate credit as well as a brief bio and photo of you as author.

  5. Gary Duerr says:

    She insisted on knowing the whole truth. That is hard for all participants, but must be done. I would admire that in anyone.

  6. powerofslow says:

    Thanks for the great post, Scott. Sally believed she could do anything and she was right. She took the necessary steps to make her dreams come true. A wonderful inspiration for any generation to follow.

  7. Miriam Erick says:

    Competence, talent and committment comes in two forms: female and male. No one should have discount their natural talents.

    • Scott Eblin says:

      Hi Miriam –

      Thanks for the neat distinction about talent coming in two forms. Love it. And, thanks to all who have shared your thoughts on Sally Ride.



  8. Tariq Mashhadi says:

    a good message for those who think options are limited.

  9. Olga says:

    Scott, thank you for good post. I will translate it and introduce my friends. Olga, Ukraina

  10. Prancingalex says:

    The whole world mourns for her, such a remarkable woman.

  11. I took pause this mourning as I read the paper. I hadn't heard that Sally had died. I spent the day in reflection about her terrific accomplishments and wondered if I could have done what she did. The answer is a resounding no. What a life of achievements. May she take that heritage as far as people remember her name. She deserves it all.

  12. Felix says:

    What a wonderful story of a heroic pioneer. Her story should be shared with every student in the nation…… given what is happening with our education system, she can serve as an example to motivate others to pursue excellence and their dreams.

    • Sally Ride’s life touched me deeply. A courageous, bold, determined, remarkable, super-woman. I imagine that it is not always easy to be a pioneer to pilot a project or being at the vanguard. Her brief sojourn with the powerful motivational testimonial Will definitely shape lives; glorious exit to a Patriot! Gloriatoks.

  13. Dale says:

    Unfortunately, most of the posts and articles ignore that Dr. Ride was able to maintain a long-lasting relationship with her partner. In some articles her surviving partner was not even mentioned.

    Maintaining a lesbian relationship is difficult even today. I am sorry that her partner was not treated to the respect she deserves.

  14. Kent Julian says:

    Great role models like Sally Ride are powerful forces for helping people realize their potential. The lessons learned from her life can definitely be keys to leadership success. Thanks for sharing, Scott.

  15. Suzette says:

    Thank you for this great post. As a teacher, my team is named after Christa McAuliffe and I will have my students reference your piece as a comparison of two incredible women who made such an impact on our world through personal motivation, commitment and service. I will have to find two similar men. This is a great start for a lesson for my students and myself.

  16. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the great post!
    We can learn a lot from them…

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