Leadership lessons from ‘The Martian’


Watching The Martian over the weekend I suddenly realised it contains a number of lessons for leadership.

SPOILER ALERT: I won’t reveal the ending, but the following material does describe the initial plot setup and then a little of what happens next.

In the story a NASA astronaut, Mark Watney, is left for dead on Mars. He wakes to find himself still alive:

“Best I can figure, this length of our primary communication antenna broke off through my bio-monitor and ripped a hole in me as well. But the antenna (and the blood, really) managed to seal the breach in my suit which kept me alive, even though the crew must have thought I was dead.”

Marooned alone, he centres and grounds, then makes sense of his situation:

“All right, though. That’s where we’re at… Stranded on Mars. I have no way to contact [the departed spacecraft] … and even if I could it’s not like they could just turn around and get me anyway. I have no way to contact Earth. And even if I could it would take four years before [they] could reach me. I’m in the Hab, designed to last 31 days. If the oxygenator breaks down I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So… yeah.”

It’s a situation that would create inner churning in the strongest of us.

But Mark is a trained astronaut, so having centred and grounded he reviews his opportunities and chooses the one that is best for him, over the long term:

“All right. Let’s attack the problem. Surface mission was supposed to take 31 days. For redundancy they sent food to last for 56 days, for six people. So for just me it’ll last 300 days. I can stretch that to 400 if I ration. Ares 4 team arrives in four years. So… I’ve gotta figure out how to grow three years’ worth of food. Here. On a planet where nothing grows…

“Luckily I’m a botanist…

“Mars will come to fear my botany powers.”

Even though the likelihood of success is low, he creates a vision that will inspire him to do what needs to be done. Whether or not it succeeds.

Then, to actually get home, Mark Watney is entirely reliant on others. He cannot force or control them to do what he needs.

Without giving away any more of the plot, the eventual plan to bring him home relies on other people going through this exact same process: centre & ground, make sense of the situation, decide what is in their own best long term interest, then choose an inspiring vision of what that will look like for them. Looking back I count this happening not once but five times during the movie.

We hopefully never find ourselves in a situation as extreme as Mark Watney. But we can all learn from the way he goes about responding to it.

The seven chapters of Inner Leadership provide tools for how to:

  1. Centre and ground
  2. Make sense of the situation
  3. Examine the alternatives
  4. Choose the best long term solution, not necessarily the easiest
  5. Check that against your purpose and values
  6. Create a vision that inspires you and others to make it happen
  7. Know how to manage the bumps along the road

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