Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from Neil deGrasse Tyson

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me starting Monday at home, participating in an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by leadership WIG calls. My WIGs for the week are to prepare for the T3 Sixty roundtable I’ll participate in soon and take two days at the end of the week to attend my niece’s out-of-town wedding. Of course, this morning, I sat down to write this post to you.

Last week we talked about mentors, and how you can have mentors you’ve never even met – such as from a book, podcast or documentary. I’d like to tell you about another mentor of mine. Let’s rewind a few years …

Read more: Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from Neil deGrasse Tyson

One of the benefits of staying at home during COVID was watching TV shows I didn’t have the time to watch before. After a few weeks of this new habit, I got concerned I was spending too much time watching mind-numbing Netflix series. I’ve always had a morning routine, but I decided I needed an evening routine that would consist of doing some sort of cardio for 30 minutes, walking after dinner, going in my infrared sauna, and watching a series for at least one hour that would teach me something new.

So, with this mission in mind, I started the “Cosmos” series (highly recommend it), which is how I first became enamored with a mentor I’d never met: Neil deGrasse Tyson. When I finished the “Cosmos” series I was so interested in how the universe works that I started the aptly named series “How the Universe Works.” It was through this series that I discovered and later met Hakeem Oluseyi, who became another mentor of mine and was the keynote speaker at our HomeServices of America Stronger Together conference and the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Summit conference.

But let’s get back to the cosmos. A brilliant educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson has inspired so many – including myself – to think bigger (like the entire universe bigger) and analyze complex ideas with a different frame of mind. Here are a few leadership lessons from this fascinating astrophysicist:

Be careful with the word “nothing.” In leadership, a tiny task might seem like nothing, or a small win might seem insignificant but as Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, our concept of a “true nothing” is harder to find than one might think. What is nothing? Is nothing what separates the empty space between the device you’re using to read this post and yourself? No. That’s air. Let’s then move to a place where there’s no air, outside of our atmosphere. Is that nothing? No, deGrasse Tyson says there are “still a few particles floating there between the planets.” What about between the stars? There may be less there but there is still something. How about between the galaxies? Well, there’s less than between the stars but still, deGrasse Tyson says a “few particles per cubic meter lurk there.” If you could hypothetically remove those particles, is what’s left considered nothing? He says, according to quantum physics: “In the pure vacuum of space there’s something called virtual particles that pop in and out of space.” Ah, again that’s not nothing. To get a true nothing, deGrasse Tyson says you’d have to arrive at a place where there is no space and no time; however if the laws of physics apply, then “there’s still something there” he says. A true nothing would be a place where there’s no matter, no space-time, and no laws at all. So, the next time you say, “Oh that’s nothing” or dismiss a small accomplishment as “nothing,” think about the true definition of nothing, and it will bring much more meaning to the topic at hand.

You lead by providing understanding, not by exercising authority. deGrasse Tyson says he wants his lasting impact on the world to be that people no longer think of him when they think about the things he’s taught them. With his guidance, they have arrived at a whole new way of understanding how the world works because he gave them the tools to think differently. “I become irrelevant,” deGrasse Tyson says. Instead of leading with authority – do this or say that – he wants to teach. Then, he says, “They can run off and don’t even look back.”

Never lose your sense of curiosity. As a kid, “everything is new” deGrasse Tyson explains, relaying a tale about a mother he saw walking with her small 3- or 4-year-old child approaching a “big, juicy puddle” on the ground. “I said, ‘please let this kid jump in the puddle,’” deGrasse Tyson explains. But instead, the mother pulled him away. “It was an experiment in cratering,” deGrasse Tyson says. If the child had jumped in the puddle, the child would get to see the impact of a downward force operating on a fluid, but because he was prevented from experiencing the puddle jump, the child can’t see it at all. “It was a bit of curiosity in that moment that was extinguished,” deGrasse Tyson says. With his own kids, if it was something that wasn’t going to severely harm them, de Grasse Tyson let them jump in puddles and experiment with the world. “I have pretty high confidence they will retain that curiosity,” he explains, defining an adult scientist as “a kid who has never lost their curiosity.” Similarly, the best kind of leaders are ones who never lose their curiosity to explore and learn about the world around them.

There’s a difference between opinion and objective fact. Interestingly, deGrasse Tyson isn’t a big fan of debates, which he thinks are mostly won on charisma and the strength of a debater’s communications skills. “If I’m good at saying, ‘the sky is green’ and I have charisma and I win the debate, that doesn’t make the sky green,” he explains. He says debating is grandstanding an idea rather than arriving at an actual solution. Instead, he separates debating opinions from objectively analyzing a solution and arriving at a decision based on fact and truth, which is the basis of scientific discovery.

So, what’s the message? In the spirit of learning something new every day, I encourage you to google Neil deGrasse Tyson, read his books and listen to his StarTalk podcast. I’m amazed and learn so much every time I do.

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