21st Century Leadership…Lessons from Julie Payette

What does successful 21st Century leadership look like?  Well, according to a number of pretty eminent scholars and teachers, those who will help us navigate through this century’s challenges will only be able to do so if they can effectively manage across borders; collaborate for optimal results; and build strong connections with others, among other things. To me, this speaks to a kind of leadership that is more grey than black and white and more feminine in nature than masculine.

But having chewed on that for a while, I had to ask myself: Who among us could possibly be representative of a leader who exhibits a healthy combination of masculine and feminine, leadership traits?

And I came up with Julie Payette.

Julie Payette is Chief Astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency and to me, a shining example of the kind of leadership required to thrive in the 21st Century.  Her choice of occupation suggests that she is a risk taker. She is compelling, imaginative, humble and appreciative of all that has come her way. And, while she works, and leads, in a traditionally masculine environment, she has maintained her distinctly feminine demeanour.

Here is a video clip of Julie speaking to graduates of York University in Toronto.

Julie is a hard act to follow.  But a wise leader might do just that, because her experiences contain lessons we would do well to consider if we are to thrive now, and in the future

So what lessons am I talking about?  Well, I can think of a few and here they are:

If we think ambition, drive & focus and collaboration, inclusion & openness are mutually exclusive, we would probably be wrong.

The traditional view of a successful leader almost always includes the first three characteristics, (generally viewed as masculine) but does not necessarily embrace the other three, (generally viewed as feminine). To successfully navigate the 21st century world we have to combine and apply all of these skills. It’s not a matter of either/or but more a matter of both/and that will lead to a productive and happy result.

If we rise high enough and look down, the borders that separate us disappear.

As much as we struggle with our territories and boundaries and with our mistaken or distorted views of each other, the truth is, none of it really matters when you’re looking at the world from space.

The 21st Century leader will find ways to navigate across borders and boundaries, real and imagined, and will do so by reaching out to learn about things and people s/he may not currently understand, in service of making meaningful and vigorous connections with others.

If we learned to really value our differences rather than grudgingly accommodate them, we would be a lot better off.

In one interview, Julie suggests that while in space, differences become assets and the team is more important than any one individual.  Back on Earth, the notion of diversity, for many of us, tends to stop at gender or ethnicity. In a time when we are constantly connecting with people all over the world this is simply not enough.  And, for a smart leader, this means staying purposely open to a variety of ideas, cultures and opinions; judging less; listening more; and using our uniqueness, and that of others, as a tool not a weapon.

To build relationships with people we may never meet face-to-face, we have to learn to communicate in a variety of ways.

Julie Payette speaks five different languages.  When asked why she was so interested in language she said that, for her, it was important to communicate with as many people as possible and her interest in languages stemmed from that. Technology too, has provided us with a multitude of ways to talk to one another.  The 21st Century leader will give priority to learning and using what technology has to offer for engaging people in meaningful and productive conversations.

There are, of course, many lessons we could learn from Julie and others like her.  And my hunch is there are more like her among us than we currently imagine.  To thrive in the 21st century we have to make room for their voices to come through and to break with traditions that no longer serve us, no matter how precious they might seem to be.  What do you think?



Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, Establishing Direction, organizational Development

10 responses to “21st Century Leadership…Lessons from Julie Payette

  1. You picked well, Gwyn. I recall Julie from my days as a flight controller in Mission Control, during the time she was in astronaut training. She always had a kind word to say. I’m very pleased to see her advancing through the ranks at CSA. Perhaps one of these days, she will be the head of CSA, much like her fellow CSA astronaut Marc Garneau was at one time.

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Joe,

    I thought perhaps you might have known Julie and would make comment. I’m so glad you did!
    I really feel uplifted when I come across someone who demonstrates that leadership does not mean giving up ‘who you are’ but rather adding depth and dimension *because* of ‘who you are’. That’s what Julie’s story does for me anyway. 🙂

  3. Terry Thomas


    What a gift to read your wise words and hear Julie’s inspiring speech! Thanks for sharing the story.

  4. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Terry,

    Thanks very much for your kind words and for taking the time to read the post 🙂

  5. Gwyn,

    I love reading your blog. Wonderful insights. Wonderful, talented leader stuff.

    In today’s world I love to hear about the “little leaders.” The people who inspire the every day worker bees they manage in all the businesses, to reach for the sky.

    It is easy to identify the great athletes, wonderful CEO’s, the talented Hollywood movie stars; but how about a post that identifies the leaders that keep all of our businesses moving forward. Those people are my champions.


  6. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Larry!

    So nice to see you here again! And no, not silly at all. There are a lot of unsung heroes among us and I actually wrote about one of them, someone I used to work with.

    Here is the link, if you are so inclined


    Let me know if that is the kind of leader you had in mind.


  7. Pingback: NOW Leadership Carnival – October 2010 | Germane Insights

  8. Cherry Woodburn

    What a great post to kick off the Carnival. I enjoyed reading it and listening to Payette.

    The point that particularly struck a chord with me was about embracing our diversity rather than grudgingly accommodating it. That is so true. Sometimes linear thinking, detailed oriented people’s behavior can bug me but without them the work I/we accomplish would not be as good.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Cherry, you have succinctly described what I think embracing diversity is about.
      Putting it into practice is a challenge because differences invite conflict and I rather think we need to work on dealing with *that* better as well. But, in the end it has to be worth the effort because I believe the results we can achieve will be so much richer.
      Thanks for coming by and for triggering more thought. I love it when that happens 🙂

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