If you’re going to hurl humans thousands and eventually millions of miles into space, they’d better be mentally strong and capable of handling intense stress and pressure.
To find the ideal astronaut NASA used a little-known tool called the Process Communication Model (PCM).
Developed in 1972, it analysed each potential astronaut into six different personality types—see separate box.
Most people tend to have some or all of these six elements in their personality.
Although designed to help decide who goes to a space station and who might go on a trip to Mars, NASA’s research has relevance to those at the top of any organisation.
For example, studies show Persisters have a much greater chance of being a CEO or high level employee in a company than all the other types. Persistence also tends to be a strong predictor of success at CEO level. 
This applies to the astronauts too. Some 71% of those selected for space trips during the 1980s were fundamentally Persisters. Taking into account also the Workaholics, these two types made up most (93%) of the entire astronaut population.
Despite their obvious positive features such as being goal-orientated, logical, observant and driven to achieve, NASA’s Persisters were highly critical of their environment and its contents. In particular, they lacked a friendly, warm, open demeanour.
But if such a person really believes in something NASA found, they’d do everything in their power to impose their view on their colleagues. Exactly the sort of person you might perhaps want as captain of the Enterprise?
Not necessarily says NASA. In essence, instead of Persisters running the show, in future there’s clearly a strong need for Reactors—these are personality types who want to please others. They will tend to keep the moral of the crew higher during extended flights.
Persisters and Workaholics crave to have their strengths recognised and respected. Luckily, the natural behaviour of Reacters allows room for such appreciation.
As leaders the attraction of Reactors is they’re highly adaptable.
Two thirds of NASA’s Reactors turned out to be women. They were seen as people who could get the best performance out of a crew and with a good combination of both persistence and reacting.
NASA concluded it should probably move from choosing mainly persistent astronauts, to giving more weight to Reactor behaviour.
Business too may need to re-think its current obsession with totally goal-orientated CEOs with their often damaging short-term approach to results.
Persistence and leaders
Successful ethical leaders stick to their true purpose—doing what they believe is right, not just doing things the correct way.
And when it comes to making ethical decisions it’s never right to do the wrong thing and persistence keeps such leaders on the straight and narrow.
In their Power of Ethical Management, Ken Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale discuss five principles of ethical decision making and they too highlight the importance of Persistence.
A 2011 study by Kaplan and others at the University of Chicago Booth School of business looked at 300 CEO candidates in firms funded by private-equity investors, both buyout and venture capital firms.
All applicants were interviewed and then rated on more than 30 specific characteristics and abilities. One category was “hard” or execution-related, such as being efficient, aggressive, persistent, and proactive.
Others were called “soft” or interpersonal, such as being flexible, a good listener, open to criticism and a team player. Some fitted neither category. The study’s conclusion was “execution-related skills were the most important:
“The most successful CEOS were those that were persistent, efficient and proactive.”
Persistence and Ethical Leaders
So how important is persistence for predicting whether someone will be a successful ethical leader? While these must be highly determined individuals who are bent on executing their intentions, the NASA findings suggest it may be equally valuable to have a strong Reacter tendency. That is the ability to rapidly respond to changing conditions.
The ever-moving target in business of constantly shifting regulations and compliance implications demands more than tweaks to systems and procedures. It implies a flexible approach from the top. It needs a creative response to the altering environment, while holding true to one’s ethical position—just the sort of capability you would associate with being a Reacter.
We surely need ethical leaders able to balance the drives of Persistence and Reacting to produce a work environment in which others can flourish and become ethically engaged.
Another important NASA finding was that Persisters and Workaholics tend to to be highly opinionated. They don’t value playfulness, persuasiveness, or even the sensitivity shown by the Reactors.
One result was both the Persisters and Workaholics at NASA usually selected new astronauts who reflected their own personal values. Put more simply, they chose clones of themselves.
This undesirable tendency to appoint others in one’s own image applies equally in a business setting. It may even help explain why women—who tend to be Reacters—have such a tough time making progress.
For decades, both business and NASA have been dominated by Persisters. Could this now be starting to change? We’re hearing a lot more these days about needing ethical leaders who sound far more like Reactors than traditional Persisters.
Today’s successful ethical leader must master the art of creating an adaptive culture—one that can make sense of emerging opportunities and threats.
Apart from developing policies and standard operating procedures, the ethical leader must support the leadership team’s ability to respond to changing environmental conditions, innovate to solve unique situations and learn from these experiences. Again these are more likely to involve Reactor behaviours than those of Persisters.
History is replete with extraordinary Persisters, Many seemed not to know when they were beaten or that odds against success were too great.
What the NASA results seem to imply is the importance of separating those leaders who are sensibly persistent, from ones who become totally obsessed and unable to adapt their goals and if necessary change direction.
There was a big difference for example, between Churchill’s refusal to surrender to the Germans–-“Never, never, never give up!”, and Margaret Thatcher’s sheer obstinacy whenever opposed—“the Lady’s not for turning”, and who was assassinated by her own party for failing to re-think the poll tax.
Churchill’s inflexibility was inspired, Thatcher’s obstinacy alienated her supporters, let alone the rest of the country.
“When I thought I couldn’t go on, I forced myself to keep going.
My success is based on persistence, not luck”
12 of the Great Persisters
When he first presented his ideas to the scientific community they booed him.
He returned to his office and kept on writing
His father and his teachers thought him “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.”
He went on to evolve
His teachers said he was too stupid to learn anything,and was fired from his first two jobs for being “non productive.” He made 1000 unsuccessful attempts at inventiing the lightbulb and said:
“I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”
Didn’t speak until he was four or read until aged seven. His parents thought he was subnormal and teachers described him as “mentally slow, unsocable and adrift forever in foolish dreams” Expelled from school he was refused admittence to the Zurich Polytechnic School.
Somehow he learned to speak and read and do a little maths.
Went broke five times before he succeeded.
Was tuned down by Atari and HP when he offered them “this amazing thing”, their new personal computer.
He went on and sold it anyway and has never been heard of since.
Was fired by a newspaper editor because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” He went bankrupt several times before he built Disneyland.
Aged 21, the acting legend was told her head was too crooked, she wasn’t beautiful enough and she wasn’t photgenic enough to make it in films.
She went on to make 100 films in her own way.
Collapsed from depression and was unable to enroll in a regular institution of higher education because she was a woman. Lived in a Paris garrett, subsisting on her meager resources, suffering from cold winters and occasionally fainting from hunger.
Became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win twice in multiple sciences.
12 publishers rejected her book about a boy wizard. The thirteenth picked up Harry Potter and has a balance sheet to prove it.
Refused to take no for an answer. He family resisted her becoming a nurse. The army played hard to get over her nursing team, and politicians refused to bellieve the mortality facts of the Crimea war until she pioneered stunning statistical and graphical presentations,
Wrote Paradise Lost 16 years after losing his sight
- Spencer, The History of the Process Communication Model in Astronaut Selection, Cornell University, December, 2000
- Kaplan et al, Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter? Journal of Finance, also see
S. Kaplan, Persistence Is Best Predictor of CEO Success, Bloomberg, Oct 2011
- See for example: Tredgold, Why Persistence Is an Important Quality For Leaders, The Leadership Hub, Dec 28 2013
- The 5 Ps: Purpose, Pride, Patience, Persistence and Perspective, Got Ethics? The Five P’s of Ethical Power, in Leading With Trust, March 3, 2013