“A leader will only achieve his full potential on the day on which he retires, as life is all about learning”

Jim Wetherbee was a NASA astronaut for almost forty years. The major lesson he learned, on his very first journey, was that a leader needs to be aware of people's behaviour, and to evaluate and influence in the best possible manner

The experience provided Jim Wetherbee with the tools required to become an expert in matters in relation to safety and risk management. Energizer explained the 'secrets' involved in making the best decisions, overcoming fear, and managing insecurity, in order to guarantee that accidents do not occur.

One of the most difficult days of his career, which he recalls with sadness due to the fact nothing could be done to help, was 01 February 2003, the date of the accident involving the space shuttle Columbia. “I was at home, it was 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and I was in front of the television waiting to watch the landing, he recounts. “When it re-entered the earth's atmosphere everything seemed to be going to plan, but when it failed to appear on the runway I realised what had happened”. And if that was a tough day, the next two months were no better. Jim Wetherbee was put in charge of the teams involved in the search and rescue operation to find the mortal remains of the shuttle´s seven astronauts, covering an area of over 40,000 km². In such a situation, he explains, “you need to work to the best of your ability, and feelings and trauma need to be put to one side. But it's tough. Really tough”, he admits.

Since then, and based on many years in an activity where danger is always lurking around the corner, Jim Wetherbee has always believed that all accidents are avoidable if all the decision-makers make better decisions. “It's easily said, but much harder to put into practice”, he guarantees. When investigating accidents, the former astronaut prefers to ask what went right rather than what went wrong. “The main thing is to know what the right decisions were, and why people thought they were the right decisions”, he clarifies. This is the only way of assessing the problem, guarantees the expert.

“A company will achieve good results if it masters the technical side of the operation, but it will achieve excellence if it masters the social side too”

In the work he currently conducts with companies from a wide range of sectors involving risk analysis and prevention, he draws attention to the importance of the human and social component, which he regards as being more important than the technique. “Companies need to produce good leaders and provide their teams with new and demanding challenges throughout their career, new responsibilities, good training programmes to help them make better decisions. Leaders need to be learning on a constant basis”, he declares. Taking all these factors into consideration, accidents are more likely to be prevented. “If companies and decision-makers understand the principles of decision-making, of operating with excellence, the principles of safety, and do not breach them, we will be able to work with no accidents”.

Confidence and humility are other factors Jim Wetherbee regards as vital to good decision-making. “These two factors need to be well-balanced”, he explains. In his opinion, overconfidence is as ill-advised as insecurity. This balance “enables us to know we are capable of making the right decision; we acknowledge we might make a mistake, but we know that in such a case we will know how to react and deal with it”.

The same applies to fear. “It's a learning process. We need to learn how to use fear in a positive manner”, he says. And he adds: “When we're working in a hazardous environment, we need to put our fear aside and not let it affect our operating capacity. Climbing into a rocket doesn´t make you an astronaut. It took me years and years to learn how to master my fears”.