Building Leadership at the Kennedy Space Center

Dowdy, Joe 2

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are excited to have Joe D. Dowdy. He is Chief of Staff at the Office of The Directory at NASA, John F. Kennedy, Space Center, in Florida.  He’s going to tell us about leadership that goes on at NASA. He manages special projects and provides organizational advice to the Center director and Sr. Management Team to improve the processes and better accomplish Kennedy Space Centers assigned mission.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: It’s a pleasure to bring a new friend to the show and I know he is going to have some exciting stories to tell us. He is a wonderful speaker, orator and teacher.

Joe is going to talk about some of the tools that NASA uses to help build leaders.

I was fortunate to meet Joe at a Walmart Executive Program that we were facilitating together as faculty for the Walmart Executive Education Program in Bentonville, Arkansas. As you know, that is Walmart’s corporate headquarters. I think it’s also one of Joe’s many homes, and he can tell us more about that.

He is a fascinating gentleman and he just took my heart and my mind into a whole other orbit, and I don’t say that lightly. Joe assumed his position at JFK Space Center in February of 2007. He manages all the special projects and provides organizational advice to the Center Director, as you said Relly, and the Sr. Management team to not only improve processes but better accomplish the Kennedy Space Center assigned missions.

Joe joined NASA after serving 25 years in the United State Marine Corps. You know my heart is close to those folks. He capped his military career as a Colonial. During his service in the Marine Corps Joe served in a variety of staff and command positions. He participated in operations, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and contingency operations in Beirut, Lebanon, Panama, Somalia.

Joe graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1979 and he earned a Masters of Arts from Webster University and Master of Arts from the US Army War College in 2001. He now resides in Coco Beach, Florida with his wife Priscilla, and has three children, John, Betsy and Jefferson.

Welcome to the show, Joe.

Joe Dowdy: Cathy and Relly, it’s wonderful to be here and you all said such kind and wonderful things, hopefully a lot of folks that are listening are friends so that they can maybe buy into that too.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well I know for sure that they’ll be your friend by the end of this program. It’s hard not to be.

Joe Dowdy: Well, you are so kind. But it really is wonderful to be here with you and your passion and both of you all’s passion for this subject of leadership and how leadership influences organizations, is certainly one that is near and dear to me, and I bet our time will fly.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I’m sure it will Joe, and what we want to do is start off, we typically start this way, you’ve got such a unique and powerful experience. I wonder who have been some of the more influential people, thinkers, in your life and your career and how have they helped shape your thinking, let’s say about leadership or your current work.

Joe Dowdy: Well, you know, that’s a wonderful questions and you know as I think through all of the folks who have had influence on me, you know, it continues to this day. That’s one of the great things about this subject of leadership and the things that we do to influence folks as we go about our daily walk.

I can think of a number of folks. It goes way back when I was a kid growing up in Arkansas. Probably the most influential person in my life was my grandfather, who was a great storyteller in his own, folksy, Ozark, as I say, hillbilly kind of way. He imparted a tremendous amount of knowledge to me in the form of stories.

You can look at history. Some of the great storytellers, Jesus as he told his parables, were all the form of a story. Of course in our own history, Abraham Lincoln was a great storyteller, almost in a parable-like fashion.

As you stated in my bio, I spent 25 years in the Marine Corps, certainly an organization such as the Marine Corps places a very high premium on leadership. So I had the great honor to serve with folks like, one of the influences now retired, 4-Star General named Tony Zinny, who his last posting was as the Commander of the U.S. Central Command and had the responsibility for all operations in the Middle East. He was my first battalion commander.

I watched him and listened to him, and I still recite the lessons that I learned from him to others.

Another big influence in the Marine Corps was a couple of guys that I served with as a Rifle Platoon Commanders, a brand-new 2nd Lieutenant Infantry Officer. I went to an Infantry Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. My platoon sergeant was a guy by the name of Sergeant Donald L. Robinson. He was from Flint, Michigan. He was my Platoon Sergeant and his next one down is called Platoon Guide. It was a Sergeant named James L. Johnson. Those two guys, I tell their stories all of the time. Some of the very important leadership lessons that I learned, I learned very early. It was the late 70s, early 80s. We were just coming out of Vietnam. We had a little different Marine in those days. It took a little different leadership approach, but some of the lessons they taught me are universal and I still use them in my leadership philosophy today.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Joe, as you are talking about these wonderful leaders in your life, you had an experience that I can resonate with at the U.S. Army War College, because I have gone there to do volunteer work during the strategic crisis exercises. Can you talk a little bit about anything that you learned about leadership that you still might carry forward to this day, from that experience?

Joe Dowdy: You know, the Army War College, and I know you’ve been up there, it’s in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I was very fortunate that of the 330 students there, there were 13 of us in a program called Advanced Strategic Arts Program. 10 Army officers, and officer from the Airforce, one from the Navy, and then myself from the Marine Crops.

Really the focus for us was to examine some of the issues attendant to what we generally call strategic leadership. As a result, we got to travel, literally, the world, with a combination of activities that I think were very influential.

For instance, we, using the military parlance, we conducted staff rides, one of which was to Washington, D.C. We got to meet with the congressmen and senators, and the professional staff of various committees, and most notably the House and Senate Armed Services Committee.

Through that experience, we were able to appreciate the issues that are involved with providing the strategic leadership, the vision, from which both the DOD and of course the military services operate in this collaborative sort of environment. My time in the Marine Corps, the 25 years that I spent there, I saw some major changes. We came out of Vietnam, and had almost a rebirth of what we were about and what we should do in terms of organization and equipment and education, and training of our force.

We see that almost culmination of those efforts by some very good strategic leaders in all the services in Desert Storm and then later in Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Joe we are wondering about your work at the Kennedy Space Center. How does that influence future leaders in the space program? Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Joe Dowdy: You know I think I probably need to begin at the beginning in terms of my involvement with NASA.

I was an undergraduate studies, I was a history and political science major, which for most people including myself 3 or 4 years ago, would think wow, what would you have to do with a high-tech organization like NASA. But, what is important in any organization, certainly something like the Marine Crops, are enduring friendships. I went to College at Old Miss, as you all had mentioned before, and graduated in 1979, and was commissioned with a number of folks. We have stayed very close over the years.

One of those gentlemen that I was commissioned with was a guy named Bill Parsons. Bill and I became Infantry officers. He had an engineering degree from Old Miss and got out after his initial commitment of 4 years. Ultimately he went to work for NASA. As I stated earlier, we stayed in close contact. After the Columbia accident in February of 2003, he was the Director of the Stennis Space Center, one of ten NASA centers throughout the country. It’s on the gulf coast of Mississippi, right on the Louisiana boarder, on the Pearl River.

He went over and took over the space shuttle program as a program manager and was called The Return to Flight, following that tragic accident. Again, we stayed in close contact and we would discuss both personal and professional sort of things over the years in terms of leadership and how one views their roles in organizations. So we had this very rich dialogue over the years.

The Return to Flight post Columbia was in the summer of 2005, and he unbeknownst to me was up in Washington D.C. at the end of August of 2005 negotiating with an administrator of NASA, Dr. Mike Griffin, what his next assignment following that 2 ½ years of really day on – stay on kind of work to get the shuttle program back to flight.

Then Katrina comes into the gulf and ultimately passes over the top of Stennis Space Center. Effects, as we all know, New Orleans, Louisiana Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I receive a phone call right after the storm, actually an email from Bill, which said, “Joe, I’m going back to Stennis and taking over as a Senior NASA official in charge of disaster recovery. I need an advisor. Would you be my advisor?”

I answered him, “yes.” I was already retired from the Marine Corps and doing some work on my own as a consultant with some leadership, some folks working in the organizational development world. He called me the next morning and asked me if I was sure and you’ll do it? I said, absolutely. I said, where do you need me, and when. He said, I need you in Huntsville, Alabama, tomorrow.

I said okay. My wife and I lived in San Diego, actually Northern San Diego County, a placed called Carlsbad, and we’d gone through this drill before, and so she helps me load up my Sea bag with clothes and then I make airplane arrangements. You just can’t quite get to Huntsville, Alabama from San Diego, very easily. So I had this long, roundabout trip, one of which took me through Cincinnati, which is the hub for that particular airline, and as we took off and we were flying down to our next stop, they lose an engine on the airplane; the pilot comes up and says, we are going to make a precautionary landing in Huntsville, Alabama. So we land there, I take my clothes off, and the next day I’m at Stennis Space Center with Bill Parsons and I walk into this disaster.

So Bill ultimately takes over pretty quickly, actually, as the Center Director, and we go into really almost the combat mode. I kind of take over in that sense as his Chief of Staff, his operations officer in military language, and we start organizing this wonderful organization called the Stennis Space Center down there on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to recover from that storm.

It was fascinating. You know the things that go into an organization as they’ve suffered a disaster of that magnitude and to get folks back on their feet, but also to kind of balance the personal concerns for each individual; their housing, their families, and the very important mission that they do at Stennis, which in this case, is testing all the rocket engines, both for the shuttle and our expendable launch vehicles that send satellites to space.

Then to finish this up, he leaves about six months later to be the Deputy Director of Kennedy Space Center, and I continue on at Stennis for about a year total, and then when he became the Center Director, he asked me to come be his Chief of Staff. I tell you, it was the best move I’ve ever made.

You can listen to the rest of this fascinating interview, above, without commercials.


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