Troublemakers: they can keep us honest and help us improve

One section of my curriculum vitae lists the organizations of which I am or was once a member. There is one organization, however, that I do not mention. Although not listed, I am proud to have been a member of The Troublemakers Club.

When I was a young astronaut at the National Research Council in Ottawa and later the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, I was an accredited Troublemaker. The founder and president of our Club was astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason. Bjarni established the sole membership criterion: “to be accepted as a member, you must have p*ssed off a vice-president on at least one occasion”. It wasn’t enough to have annoyed a manager or a director – our words or actions had to have been egregious enough to have incensed an NRC or CSA vice-president or president.

Our informal Club was not easy to join and was therefore somewhat elite. Besides me, several astronauts and other space colleagues were members. Troublemakers Club meetings typically occurred at a neighbourhood pub. Over lunch and beverages, we would listen to the testimonies of budding Troublemakers and the supporting statements of their nominators to ensure that the new applicants met the admission criterion. And sometimes we would just get together for lunch and beverages to share stories of troublemaking escapades and to laugh.

The name of our Club was probably a misnomer. Our intent was not to make trouble for our executive leaders. Our objective was not to create chaos. But we did take pride in challenging conventional wisdom and speaking up when organizational improvements could be made.

I was delighted to learn last week that fellow Troublemaker and University of Calgary alumnus Dr. David Kendall MSc’72, PhD’79 has been honoured with the C.D. Howe Award by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute. The Institute’s prestigious award is presented for achievements in the fields of planning and policy making, and for overall leadership in Canadian aeronautics and space activities. This is a well-deserved accolade for Dave.

David Kendall, CASI's 2017 C.D. Howe Award laureate

David Kendall, CASI’s 2017 C.D. Howe Award laureate

If my memory is correct, it was me who nominated Dave for Troublemaker membership many years ago. Amongst other leadership traits, Dave Kendall’s straightforwardness has served the Canadian and international space communities well. He calls things as they are without beating about the bush. It has been a joy for me to work on several occasions with Dave throughout my career.

Many other Troublemakers have gone on to do great things. I like to think that Club values have percolated into the cultures of our respective organizations. I like to think that our willingness to challenge leadership has fostered sober second thought.

Serving today on committees and boards with contrary-minded members is a pleasure for me. Without being obstructive or impolite, these individuals keep us honest and help us search for the best solutions. On the other hand, workers who focus more on career self-preservation than on values and vision make me uncomfortable. Uncritical and risk-averse adherence to the status quo does their organizations no favour.

I often reflect on the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accidents. The primary causes of these Accidents were attributed to technical design flaws. But fault also laid in flawed decision-making. I wonder if the outcomes of those missions would’ve been different if lower-level managers had had more empowerment to express concerns and if senior executives had listened.

I am pleased about the recognition that Dave Kendall has received from the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute. It is well deserved. Dave plays a prominent role on the world stage and I regard him as a role model. His example reminds me to speak up when beliefs and processes need to be challenged; to candidly speak of our failures so that organizations can learn and grow. We all have a professional responsibility to be truthful, frank and direct.

One thought on “Troublemakers: they can keep us honest and help us improve

  1. Congratulations David and really well stated Mr. Thirsk. If only companies and organizations truely valued this approach.

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