Some people are born with leadership skills, but that doesn’t necessarily mean others can’t learn. Dr. James T. Brown packs an impressive 16 years of increasingly responsible leadership positions at NASA and later worked as a consultant and trainer in leadership, project management and decision making before becoming a faculty member at the UCF College of Business. Dr. Brown is simply an expert in leadership training and project management. But does teaching someone what makes a leader mean they can become a leader themselves?


Featured Guests:

  • James T. Brown – Lecturer, Integrated Business, UCF College of Business

Episode Transcription:


Paul Jarley:                         It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “You can’t teach leadership. Leaders are born, not made.” It’s a fair argument. Quality of leadership isn’t always something that can be measured. And you just can’t expect to become a leader by reading stuff out of a book. After all, you don’t become a chef by studying a cookbook. You have to cook. But that doesn’t mean theory from the classroom can’t be put into practice.

Paul Jarley:                         This show is all about separating hype from fundamental change. I’m Paul Jarley, Dean of the College of Business, here at UCF. I’ve got lots of questions. To get answers, I’m talking to people with interesting insights into the future of business. Have you ever wondered, “Is this really a thing?” On to our show.

Paul Jarley:                         This episode features one out our Integrated Business faculty. Dr. James T. Brown, is an engineer at heart. He spent more than 15 years at NASA. He later used this experience to offer consulting and training services on leadership, project management, and decision making, to companies both small and large. Every month, we pick one of our faculty members to address a crowd of local business partners and alumni at an event we call The Dean’s Speaker Series. This time, we invited Dr. Brown to talk about what makes a good leader, some of the worst pitfalls he’s ever seen, and how to avoid some of these missteps. Naturally, we pulled out the best parts, and turned it into a podcast. I hope you enjoy.

James T. Brown:               Project management is an art. That is why everybody can’t do it. I don’t care how much process you have, doesn’t make a difference. Project management is an art. Just like art, it has principles. Every artist knows what happens when you mix red and yellow. `The principles are there, but the actual application of it is an art. It’s very difficult.

James T. Brown:               There’s a little girl. You may have heard of her before. She shows up at the three bears’ house. And she says, “Too hot. Too cold. Too hard. Too soft.” What is she looking for?

Crowd:                                 [crosstalk 00:02:06]

James T. Brown:               Just right. This is what we’re looking for with process. Just right. Can you give me the just right amount of process? And good process is born out of leadership. You get the leadership right, the process will be right. You can’t take process and be successful in the absence of leadership.

James T. Brown:               The reason I wrote a book on program management and not project management is this. Most project failure isn’t caused by the project manager. It’s caused by the people above them. The people above them are the ones that put the project managers in a position that makes it difficult for them to be successful. So a lot of what I talked about today with leadership, it applies to project managers, but it also applies to those people that are above them.

James T. Brown:               So this is our, our breakfast menu today. The one that’s underlined there, establish accountability and clear direction. That’s what I’m going to talk about first. So establish accountability and clear direction. I was in the company headquarters. And when I walked through the door I was conducting training for a week. First morning in, huge building. And it was interesting because, they had a special door for the executives. And that door was roped off with a velvet rope, like if you ever went to a nightclub. I nobody here probably goes nightclub, but if you ever went to a nightclub, sometimes they have a velvet rope that that separates things. So they had this velvet rope separated them, and the executives would come in on their side of the velvet rope, get the Wall Street Journal, get on their private elevator, go to the top floor where they had a private dining room. Do you think that they had a feel for what really goes on at the company?

James T. Brown:               If you can’t even ride the elevator with the regular workers, odds are you don’t have a feel. They are what I call PowerPoint leaders. They don’t actually know how work is accomplished at the working level, because everybody brings them a presentation. And then when the company gets in trouble, do you know what they do? They go and hire consultants. These leaders are consultants’ dreams. They hire consultants. You know what the consultants do? They go talk to the people at the working level, where they find a problem, and the answer, they put it in a PowerPoint package and take it back up to the people on their private elevator.

James T. Brown:               It’s a real simple process, drives a lot of capitalism in America. And this is what frustrates me. My wife, she loves to watch this program called, which is it… Undercover Boss. Undercover Boss, and I’m like, I can’t even watch it because it makes me so angry. That that you are a leader and this is the first time you’ve actually seen how things work in your company. All right, so this whole leading with a feel. That means you really have a feel. This picture I put up here with [inaudible 00:05:14], because that’s how you’re leading, if you don’t have a feel. You have to have a feel, for what is going on.

James T. Brown:               There’s a launch director, that launched more space shuttles than anybody, and he’s one of the first people I interviewed for my book. When I was conducting research. And he was famous. He was famous, for getting the shuttle off the ground, and he was famous for a lot of things. But he always said this. That, “I will go out and see what’s going on third shift. I will go to different locations throughout the space center. I will go different to different locations throughout the country and talk to people at the working level.” And then he said this. “There has never been a week, when I went out and talk to people at the working level, that that wasn’t the most valuable part of my week.” The most valuable part.

James T. Brown:               So here’s my tip for you. I don’t care if you have 3,000 people working for you, or 50. You can use a random number generator in Excel, you put all the people in there. And every day, somebody’s name is going to pop up at the top, at random. You go talk to them. You don’t have to necessarily even ask them about their work. You can just go and talk to them. Because when you talk to people, you learned a lot. Even if you’re not talking about work. You see how frazzled they are, how un-frazzled they are, or you see a lot of things and then you will have feel.

James T. Brown:               The next thing I’m going to talk about, slow it down. Some people think the leader’s role is to expedite, expedite, expedite. My opinion is, the leader’s role is really to slow it down. Everybody’s trying to get it done. That same leader I was talking about, famous for getting the show off the ground. The launch team would say this. He was so famous for doing it. If it was a cloudy day. This is what they would say, “Don’t worry. [inaudible 00:07:04] will find a hole in the clouds.” He was famous for managing the cut, the countdown clock. Because in Florida, you know we got clouds, a windows sun, clouds. Cloudy day, window of sun, off goes the space shuttle. Done.

James T. Brown:               When I asked him about that. This was his response. He says, “People think my role as launch director is to get the show off the ground. Since my role is launch director, my role as the leader, is to stop the launch. Everybody has launch fever. Everybody’s trying to find a way to make it work. I have to make sure that is really ready to go.” And he said, “Even the astronauts will tell me. They’ve been on their back for four hours. They’ve been training for this mission for a year. They’ve been wanting to go to space their entire life. When you asked us if we’re go, we’re always going to say go. We depend on you stop.” And so when you’re the high level leader, you have to be that person to make sure insanity doesn’t take place.

James T. Brown:               But if you’re always pushing, pushing, pushing. Then you end up creating insanity. When you cross 90% capacity, you end up getting less work done over the course of a year. If you cross 90% capacity, you get less work done over the course of a year. Because what you’ve done now is, you created a whole lot of waiting time and interference in the system. In other words, your work environment’s characterized by a lot of firefighting. Starting and stopping, starting and stopping, starting and stopping. Oh, we’re working on this? Now, oh wait, this happened over here, we got a vector over here. That’s how your work environment’s characterize. And this is true for any system.

James T. Brown:               If you don’t believe it, I’ll say it this way. Have you ever been on I-4 at a certain time of day? Once that interstate gets certain, I mean, gets a number of cars on it. Then it’s going to be starting and stop. And if somebody slams on their brakes, it doesn’t even have to be an accident, they can create a two mile backup. Just by slamming on the brakes. And sometimes that happens in the work environment. Somebody slams on the brakes with an incident, and then we have this whole backup. If you still don’t believe me, if you have a computer system and your memory gets above 90% full, or your hard drive gets above 90% full, what happens? You look at the hourglass.

James T. Brown:               So the role of the leader here is to make sure. Are we like at 80, 85% capacity? give us some margin, some buffer, so that we can handle things that come up? Because everything always goes, we produce more work when things go smooth. And sometimes people ask me, can you measure capacity? In a lot of environments, you may be able to, but in most environments not. But we certainly know when things aren’t going smooth. We certainly know when we’re dominated by firefighting. We certainly know when we’re going, starting and stopping, starting and stopping. And if that’s the case, we either got to cut back on work, or increase capacity. Because nothing comes for free. And this is where the leader has to step in. This is a leadership role.

James T. Brown:               That deals with number three, don’t ask for the impossible. I’m always astounded by leaders that, [inaudible 00:10:17] something, this has to happen by May 31. No clue about what resources are available. They think because they are the VP, the CIO, the director, whatever their title is. If they just name it, then it will happen. And then people are jumping through hoops to try to do it. They don’t want to do it. No one will listen.

James T. Brown:               I was dealing with a company. I can’t say the name because, since I had a contract with them at the time, but this was written up in the Wall Street Journal. So it is public knowledge. They took a 2 billion with a B dollar write off on a project. Billion with a B. Some of the articles you can read about it today say 4 billion dollar loss. And here was the problem. And a lot of you I guarantee have their service or product in your product or pocket right now. The problem was the technology didn’t work. The technology didn’t work. And what happened when a technical person said, “Excuse me. This technology doesn’t work.” They took out the machine gun, gunned them down. After they see three people get gunned down, the people just put their head down. And they put their head down all the way to a 2 billion dollar loss. The company would hold these rallies and say, and I’m going to call the Project X-Y-Z, “If you weren’t on the X-Y-Z train, you’re not part of this company.” They called that motivation. And that’s the way they did it, and this was the result.

James T. Brown:               Then finally on this one, communicate through prioritization. This is how we communicate, from a project point of view. From a leadership point of view, I would hold you in dereliction of duty if you can’t show me your top 10 issues in priority order. Project managers that work for me, I want to see their risk in priority order, the requirements in priority order, the stakeholders in priority order. And priority order drives communication. It drives it, because I can’t say, A is more important than B, or B is more important than C, unless I understand A and B. If I’m sitting down with the people that work for me, we can’t say this is more important than that, unless we all have the same understanding. So it drives me. So if I worked in your organization, I would expect to see all… You should show me a list of all the projects in priority order, so I know what’s most important. And let me give you the sheer sign of a lack of, if you want to identify somebody that’s not a leader, I’m gonna give you a test right now.

James T. Brown:               If they say everything is top priority, they’re not a leader. Leaders put things priority order. If they say everything is top priority, in your mind, this is what I want you to think. Slacker. Unworthy of the check they’re taken from the company. Don’t say it out loud though. That is what I want you to think because, I can use third grade math and prove to you that that’s fictional. If everything is top priority, that means everything is equal priority, and if everything is equal priority, the statement everything is top priority is no different than a statement, everything is bottom priority. It’s the same thing. How would you feel, if you show up for work in a new job and they say, “At our company, everything is bottom priority. You’re my bottom priority, too.”

James T. Brown:               So, if you’ve ever said everything is top priority, I forgive you. But from this day forward, if you say that, I want you to toss and turn at night. I want your significant other to say, “What’s wrong dear?” And you say, “Well, I said everything is top priority today. An I know, I know that’s not true.”

James T. Brown:               Create an environment that does not create mediocrity. I’ll do that, then I will go in investing in developing people in teams. When I was in high school, I rode the bus. Riding the bus in high school it’s not cool. Not cool at all, but I rode the bus. And one day on the bus, a fight broke out. And the fight was between a real hoodlum. Like a real hoodlum, okay? And a play hoodlum. Now, a play hoodlum is somebody that tries to talk like a hoodlum, act like a hoodlum. But, when they get off the bus, they go to a 3,000 square foot house, and their father is the, you know. And so they’re just acting like a hoodlum.

James T. Brown:               So the real hoodlum and a play hoodlum were fighting. And somebody actually grabbed the real hoodlum. And I said, “Wow, that’s impressive. If he can grab the real hoodlum, I can certainly grab the play hoodlum.” So I grabbed the play hoodlum, and I’m holding them back. And they’re holding the real hoodlum back. And they’re young men, 17 years old, full of testosterone, saying what they want to do to each other. And the play hoodlum is talking so good about what he wants to do this guy, that I start to think, “If I don’t let him go and finish this is, it’s going to affect him the rest of his life.” So I started easing off his biceps, and he just cut me a look and said, “Whatever you do, don’t let me go.” He was just talking. He was just, he didn’t really want to do it.

James T. Brown:               So when I say walk the talk here, in a lot of organizations you have leaders to say, “Quality is our first priority. Customer service is our first priority.” But what do they do, when you’re under pressure? Do they say ship it out the door anyway? Find a way to make it work. In other words, the people that work in an organization, or the people that support your projects. They see what you really do. They see what your actions are. You can have, and this cracks me up when I go to companies where they have posters on the wall everywhere about this and that, and this. But their culture doesn’t reflect the poster. I don’t care how many posters you have, people judge you by your actions. How you handle the situations. When you say, “We’re going to take a hit here, because we can’t do it. We’re going to tell the customer this, this, and this, and we’re going to take the hit.”

James T. Brown:               So also here, set standards and boundaries on what is acceptable. You know we should know what is acceptable here. Like when I’m a project manager, I make one thing very clear. If I ever catch you working outside of the control process, doing work that hasn’t been approved, that is like my number one no-no. I will… My father was a marine so that’s when I say, I will go in Marine Corps mode on that one. So everybody knows that’s a boundary. So, we have to establish whatever these boundaries are, and people know what is acceptable.

James T. Brown:               A sense of pride. We should also have that. That we have to create pride. We want to be proud of our organization, proud of our company. Sometimes people mistake pride and arrogance. They think that because a certain company does so well and whatever, and the people who might… I want to call their name, but they’re a local company, and I’ll get in trouble. But I work for this company. And they have an attitude about it. And I’m saying there’s nothing wrong with that attitude. If you look at people to do things at a very high level, they have pride in it, and they have a certain degree of confidence in it. And when we’re the leader, we want to instill that.

James T. Brown:               Another thing that I would say that this is, and this is in, if you’ve heard of the restaurant Shake Shack, the author, I mean that restaurant owner. He has a book out there. I’m not saying to read the book, but this is an interesting point from it. He says there’s three kinds of employees. You have overwhelmers. By the way, I can’t spell and my boss is here. So I hate to say this, but you have overwhelmers. You have underwhelmers. And then you just have whelmers. He says, the most dangerous employee in an organization is not the underwhelmer, because you will get rid of them. The most dangerous employee in the organization is the whelmer. The person that says, “Average is good enough here.”

James T. Brown:               When you let that person stay, that is when things happen badly. Because then you have a whole culture that says, “Average is okay here.” And you have to get rid of them. I speak to a lot of small businesses sometime, and this is what they will say. “I had a person that was average, and when I got rid of them, I was surprised at 14 people came by my office and told me they’re so glad that we got, that I got rid of that person.” Don’t tolerate mediocrity. Do not tolerate, because you’re… I always looked at it like this. It’s my role to protect the entire team organization. And when I let that mediocrity exists, I’m not doing that.

James T. Brown:               In other words, yes, that person may have this or that, but what can you say? Management measure the fundamentals, we get away from the fundamentals a lot. Here’s the thing about leadership and project management. There’s really nothing new in it. Been doing it, thousands of years. Nothing new. People put it in new packages, but it’s still the same thing. But the question is, do we do it? A lot of times when I conduct training or anything like that, people come to say this. “You really didn’t say anything new, but it reminded me of what I didn’t do. It reminded me of what I used to do.” And so all I’m saying is, pay attention to the fundamentals. Great, great athletic teams, they practice the fundamentals. Blocking and tackling if it’s football. All of that great musicians practice the fundamentals. So this is something we have to do in the business world also.

James T. Brown:               So we’re going to jump now to invest in developing people in teams. It is not enough to get all the work on your plate done in the next year. In other words, whatever you had outlined for the next year to get done. If that year walks down the road, and we’re a year from now, we got everything done. That’s not enough. I have a year from now, not only do I have to get everything done, but I have to grow the people along the way. You should be much more capable as an organization, a year from now, than you are today. Because you consciously chose to grow the people, as you executed. And it dawned on me once, when I was watching this high level leader that I was working with, and it finally clicked in my head as I was watching him that, he is actually teaching in this meeting. It’s not just a meeting. He is teaching. And this is when you’re the leader, or you’re the project manager. You, whoever, every time you have a meeting, it’s not just a window where you’re going to go accomplish the agenda. You have to think about, what am I teaching in this meeting?

James T. Brown:               And so I develop people all along the way, because sometimes I hear people that are leaders in companies or an organization say, make this statement. “We don’t have anybody we can promote to this position. Nobody at our company is capable of doing this.” And I want to say, “Whose fault is that? Whose fault is that, that you haven’t developed people along the way?” This is one of the things we have to do, but sometimes we’re in such a hurry to get things done, that we don’t develop people as we go. So this is one of the things that we have to do consciously. Consciously we have a strategy for it. Team building should be part of the budget and plan. In other words, I have a budget for team building. I’m going to do activities.

James T. Brown:               When I worked for NASA, if you saw the Apollo 13 meeting. That flight director, Jim Krantz, was director of mission operations. We were extremely busy. This is when they said, “We’re saying the shuttle’s going to going to fly 78 times a year.” We were extremely busy, and certain things about him impressed me as a leader. One was this. Every new employee in his organization, you would have to come and brief him a year after being in the organization. He would take his time out, to hear what you did your first year in his organization. The other thing he did, is he would personally come and brief all new employee groups, once a quarter. So anybody that was hired in his organization, once a quarter he would come in and brief. And he would talk to you for hours about his opinion of manned spaceflight, and the cost required, and what it takes to be successful, and all of that. It was amazing. But, as busy as we were, every year we also had something called the Mission Operations Directorate Olympics. Where the organizations competed against each other.

James T. Brown:               So every section in the organization competed in each other in Olympic events. Like coin toss, three legged race, basketball, softball, all of these events, we would compete with each other over the weekend. And to tell you what kind of guy he was, one year he either separated his shoulder or elbow diving for the finish line in the sack race. That’s what kind of individual was. But, and the winner got a trophy that was a horse. Half of the horse. The winner got the first half of the horse. The losing organization, got the back half of the horse. And nobody wanted to lose. Your leader didn’t want to lose, because the loser had to run the Olympics that next year. So it was really intense competition, because you do not want to have to run it. But all I’m saying is, as busy as we were, he had structure team building. If you don’t have time for team building, you don’t have time for success. I’ll say it that way. You have to build it in you have to block it in.

James T. Brown:               Also, you have to humanize people. Sometimes we look at people and say, “That’s the IT guy.” Are they the IT guy, or do they have a name? Do you look at people as a representative of their organization? In other words, I’ll say it this way. Do you see them as human being first, IT guy second. Or IT guy first, who may or may not be human being. I see a lot of star stuff in there, but how do I see them? So this is one of the things that I have to make sure that I deal with. I’m always trying to, the more I can get people to look at each other in the eye and see them as human beings, the more problems I prevent from happening. So it’s one of those things.

James T. Brown:               Accelerate the development of high achievers. A lot of high level, NASA leaders got there because they have a program that has a formal name now. But it had a very politically incorrect name then. Now you’re like, they call it, “You’re the center director’s technical intern.” When I worked there, it was the Bubba Program. Bubba was, “Hey Bubba, do this. Hey Bubba, do that.” So once you became the center director’s technical intern, then at a very low level, you went everywhere the center director went for six months to 18 months. You heard every sensitive thing the center director her for six months to 18 months. And because of that, somebody that had a perspective on NASA like this. After 18 months, has a perspective like this.

James T. Brown:               And often, they can now solve problems across organizational boundaries, because they develop relationships with all the other senior executives. And this is one of the things a lot of organizations struggle with. How do we solve that problem that causes four organizational boundaries, with all the competing stakeholders. Now you’ve created people in your system that can do that. And so it’s been very successful. Multiple summon directors came out of this. Multiple high level leaders came out of this process. And then also sometimes identifies people that you know are never going to get to that level. But it’s good because, one of the things high level leaders always have to do, or leaders have to do is, how do I take what’s the knowledge and experience in my head, and how do I efficiently transfer it to others. So that I don’t become the point of contact bottleneck.

James T. Brown:               Handle mistakes positively. There was a there was a high level leader in NASA that I respected him so much that I stalked him. In other words, whenever there was a meeting, I would try to sit as close to him as possible, so I could hear what he would whisper to the person sitting next to him. And so he would be, he was one of the first people I interviewed for my book. And one of the things he told me was this, which was the first bullet. He said, “James.” He said, “Your best people, are always going to make your biggest mistakes. Your best people, are always going to make your biggest mistakes.” And it’s kind of counterintuitive you think my best people are going to make. But then he follows with this. He says, “Your best people are doing the most work. They’re doing the most complicated work. They are the ones trying to make it happen.” He said, “So when that person makes a mistake, before pound them in the ground, or before we criticize them. This is what we have to say. What did we do as leaders to put this good person in a position that they made a mistake?”

James T. Brown:               That’s the first question you asked when the mistake is made. What did we do as leaders that put this good person in this position, that they made this mistake. Because often, we bear the majority of the blame. We know the person is good. And they made this mistake. Are we working them too hard, or were things not set?

James T. Brown:               The second one is let people fail safely so they can grow. There’s an insurance company I deal with in the Midwest. If you make a mistake there… And I’ll say this. The only reason that they’re in business is that they can arbitrarily raise rates. Because nobody at that organization will make a decision. They all wait until the circumstances decide, because if you make a bad decision you’re punished. Or you have to let people make a mistake. And when I tell, when I have project managers that work for me, or this is what I tell project managers. If you make three out of four decisions correctly, I consider that great performance. That’s what I tell project managers. I give them permission to make a mistake. Because what I don’t want them doing is waiting, and waiting, and waiting, trying to be perfect. But I say this, when you make a mistake, identify it early. Own it, don’t pass it off on somebody else. Change it.

James T. Brown:               I want to be an environment where people make a decision. “Oh, that’s not.” Then once you see is not the correct decision, you own it. You don’t say, “Well, if this person over there hadn’t told me this.” No, you own it and change it. Because otherwise, you’re going to be waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I give them permission to make a mistake. And another thing is, you can’t develop people if they don’t make mistakes. They can’t grow if they don’t make mistakes. So I like to make aggressive mistakes. I want to fail with the sword of aggressiveness, in my hand. I don’t want to die behind the shield of a passiveness with 1,000 micro cuts, oozing blood. So I’m going to go out and be very aggressive. Especially in project management. It’s one of the things that I have to do.

James T. Brown:               And this last one is huge. Calculated failure points. Every organization should have calculated failure points. In this room, somewhere that, we have lights, we have electricity. Somewhere in this building is a breaker box, that if there’s a short in the wire something pops. It is poor leadership, if something in your organization breaks, and it breaks where you did not want it to. You’re always going to have failures on occasion, but those failures should always occur where you chose for them to occur.

James T. Brown:               In other words, I’ve thought about it ahead of time. In other words, if I have people that are trying to juggle 12 plates. I tell them, “Okay, I know you’re trying to juggle 12 plates. If you have to drop one, drop a blue one or green one. Never drop a red one.” I give them permission in direction or where I want them to make the mistake. Meaning if I have 16 customers, four of those customers might generate 80% of my revenue. I never want to have anything happen with any of those four customers. But that customer who’s only two or 3% of my revenue, if we’re going to make a mistake, we’re going to make it with that customer. In other words, I not only defined that, I communicate that, so people know where they can make a mistake. So I think about this. This requires a thought process to say, what are our calculated failure points? Where are we choosing not to be good? What are our calculated failure points?

Paul Jarley:                         Is leadership really a thing? Well of course it is. Can it be taught? Frankly, I’m not so sure. What I do know, is that followers make leaders. People follow someone because they trust them. They trust them, because they’ve learned that the leader does what they say they’re going to do, and delivers on a shared vision. If you want to be a leader, you should understand that you need those followers more than they need you. Act accordingly.

Paul Jarley:                         So what’s your take? Check us out online, and share your thoughts at You can also find extended interviews with our guests, and notes from the show. Special thanks to my producer Josh Miranda, and the whole team at the Office of Outreach & Engagement here at the UCF College of Business. And thank you for listening. Until next time, charge on.