What has Going to Mars got to do with How You Lead Your Team Remotely?

A manned trip to Mars within our lifetimes is a high probability. Billionaire, Elon Musk has his heart set on it, and there’s a modern-day space race between nations to get there first.

Just as the race to the moon gave us more down-to-earth technological advancements, like sneakers, digital photography, and wireless headsets, preparation for the moon is revealing how teams will function remotely.

Before I share some recent findings from Long Mars Simulations, let’s review what a Mars shot has in common with leading a team.

Leading Teams

  1. Vision: Going to Mars is a bold and ambitious goal that requires a clear and compelling vision. The same is valid for leading a team. A great leader has a clear and inspiring vision for their team and knows how to communicate this as a ‘Why’ that motivates and excites others.
  2. Strategy: To go to Mars, a lot of planning, resources, and expertise are required. The same is true for leading a team. An effective leader has a well-thought-out strategy for achieving their goals, and they know how to set objectives and allocate resources 
  3. Collaboration: Going to Mars is not a solo mission. It requires the collaboration of a variety of individuals, and stakeholders. Leading a team also requires collaboration. Leaders know how to build strong relationships with their team members, and partners and they understand the importance of teamwork and communication.
  4. Self-leadership: Going to Mars is not easy, and there will be many challenges along the way. The same is true for leading a team. Leaders need self-leadership to persevere through tough times and must know how to motivate their team to do the same.

Teams. Long Mars Simulations, and Work-from-Home

How would a team of astronauts separated from home by nearly 380 million kilometers (236 million miles) fare in a manned landing on Mars, and with a prolonged stay? Would they be able to maintain constant communication with Earth and work flawlessly as a team? Or would they devolve into anarchy, cutting off communication with their superiors and establishing an autonomous colony? 

Russian researchers have been finding out before spending billions on the real thing by putting a group of people in a Mars colonization simulation.

The results from Project Sirius (Scientific International Research In Unique Terrestrial Station) were recently published in Frontiers in Physiology. With the aim to understand astronauts’ psychology during long space flights, seventeen and 120-day isolation experiments were conducted in 2017 and 2019, respectively.

Little did they know that there would be a Global isolation experiment, prompted by the pandemic, from 2020 to 2022!

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The results confirmed their fears: the delay in communication due to distance, combined with the extended period away from Mother Earth, caused the astronauts to become detached from mission control and almost autonomous.

Similar observations have been made with extended work-from-home experiments. 

While it is encouraging that an isolated team was able to take matters into their own hands and live autonomously, their disconnection from Mission Control (MC) was concerning.

The concern was that the decreased communication reduced MC’s ability to understand the needs and problems of the team, which consequently hinders their ability to provide support.

Some gender differences were observed. Women reported problems to MC  more frequently and their communication styles were more emotional. Men, on the other hand, were less likely to report to MC. Surprisingly, by the end of the simulation, both men and women had adapted to each other’s communication styles, forming a similar level of emotion and communication regularity.


As I write about in The New Leadership Playbook: Being Human Whilst Successfully Delivering Accelerate Results, developing autonomy within individuals and teams is important for productivity and adaptability. The challenge is to maintain communication at an empathetic as well as tactical level.

Many leaders have adapted to engaging their virtual teams and checking in with how they are feeling before launching into objective-setting and feedback.

I recently gave a speech to a group of CTOs and was asked what else they could do to show empathy. My answer was that instead of taking on all the responsibility for the communication, tap into the autonomy of the team members and ask them what their needs were and how thy best wanted to share those.

Leadership is a conversation, whether one-to-one or one-to-many, and a conversation goes both ways. 

Going to Mars and leading a team are both challenging endeavors that require vision, strategy, collaboration, and self-leadership. The skills and qualities needed to succeed in one are transferable to the other, and leaders can learn a lot from the lessons of space exploration.





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