When we hear the name Sally Ride, most of us immediately think of NASA and space. This makes sense since she was the first woman to enter space, and the youngest American astronaut ever to make the trip as well.
But it’s just as possible the name Sally Ride could evoke thoughts of tennis and raising trophies at Wimbledon. Growing up in California, Sally began playing tennis at the age of 10. Her work ethic and skills eventually led to a scholarship at a private school for girls and a ranking as high as the top 20’s on the junior tennis circuit.
Sally’s passion for tennis prompted her to drop out of Swarthmore College during her sophomore year to pursue her dream of a professional tennis career. It was the 1970’s and women’s sports were starting to gain more traction. However, after just three months of taking a swing at a tennis career, Sally decided to return to school. This time, she returned to her home state and attended Stanford University. She earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and English before going on to receive master’s and doctorate degrees in physics. It was during her post-graduate work when the opportunity of a lifetime came along.
The Opportunity of a Lifetime
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration released an advertisement that caught Sally’s eye. NASA was looking for people with technological and scientific skills as well as physical fitness, decision-making skills, leadership, and courage. She said to herself, “I’m one of those people.”
NASA chose Sally as one of five women for their class of 1978. Just five years later she made history. On June 18, 1983, the space shuttle Challenger hurtled Ride and four of her colleagues into space for their week-long mission. Sally had to overcome the stereotypes which still plagued women in careers typically held by men. During media interviews, she faced questions of whether she would still be able to reproduce after going into space and what type of makeup she was packing for the trip.
After two successful space shuttle missions, Sally Ride served on the investigation committee of the 1986 Challenger accident, assumed a role to help with strategic planning for NASA, and then became a professor and advisor on several committees and boards.
Using a Deliberate Strategy…
As leaders, one of the challenges we face in pursuing our dreams is knowing when to press forward with our plans and when to seize an opportunity that knocks on our door. So why is Sally Ride’s name synonymous with space rather than tennis? Is it possible she could have become a highly-touted tennis player if she would have stuck to the goals she set and the passion she felt as a teenager? The answers can not only help us navigate our own leadership journey, but aid us in assisting the young people we work with who are often simply told to follow their dreams.
Clayton Christiansen was a brilliant business mind who authored The Innovator’s Dilemma and taught at Harvard Business School. In his book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, he explained the difference between deliberate strategies and emergent strategies. Deliberate strategies result from the goals and plans we set. We allocate our resources of time and energy toward the steps necessary to achieve the objectives we set. Sally Ride maintained a deliberate strategy to become a professional tennis player. This is why she dropped out of college during her sophomore. At the time, school seemed to be in conflict with executing her deliberate strategy. Yet, within three months she had chosen to pivot and return to school.
Was Sally Ride a quitter? She had a dream she wanted to pursue. Why didn’t she stick with it and fight through her tough times to achieve the goals she had set? VISION is an important word, but sometimes the word REVISION is even more important to possess in our vocabulary.
…Along with an Emergent Strategy
Christiansen said we must also utilize emergent strategies. These are strategies that present opportunities to us that are not part of the original plan. Sally Ride encountered an emergent opportunity when she saw the NASA advertisement looking for future astronauts. She took stock of her situation and considered whether this opportunity would help her become the best version of herself. It was a situation where she could not only use the external skills she had developed in college but the internal leadership skills she had been refining throughout her life.
When Sally applied to NASA, the emergent strategy became her new deliberate strategy. Although she was completing her doctorate in physics, she began studying engineering. Why? Because she knew it would be a valuable skill to help her execute her new deliberate strategy.
However, this didn’t mean her previous deliberate strategy had been a waste. She used the athletic ability and work ethic she honed in the pursuit of a tennis career in her NASA training. And she was familiar with doing things not always considered appropriate for women.
Each time Sally Ride made a pivot in her career, it was because she seized an emergent opportunity and then turned it into a deliberate strategy. This happened when she moved from a shuttle astronaut to an administrator focused on strategic planning. And eventually when she became a professor and promoted a science curriculum to inspire young girls to pursue careers in science.
Learning to Dance
So what can we learn from Sally Ride’s leadership journey? We can understand it is beneficial to possess a deliberate strategy to use our gifts and abilities. But we can’t put all our eggs in one basket. We need to maintain awareness for opportunities that enter our field of vision. It doesn’t mean we have to jump at each of these opportunities. However, we can be mindful of whether these opportunities will help bring us closer to the person we desire to be.
Life is a dance between our deliberate strategies and the emergent strategies we encounter as we move forward.
How can we use the tools of deliberate and emergent strategies to help our students pursue their dreams? We need to make sure young people understand they don’t need to have everything about their future figured out right now.
At the same time, we need to reinforce that it’s okay for students to pursue something which doesn’t end up being their final destination. Even if they pivot away from their current deliberate strategy, they can use the skills and experiences from that season on the next leg of their journey.
We are often told to find what we are passionate about, set a goal, and don’t stop until we achieve it. This isn’t really helpful advice for pursuing our dreams…for us as classroom leaders or for our students. And it often ends up confusing us more than anything. Rather, we can use a strategy that has a deliberate component but also keeps an open eye for opportunities to emerge.
When we learn to dance in the rhythm of our deliberate and emergent strategies, we step into the calling of leadership which leads to a life serving others.
- Reflect on a time when you have pivoted toward an emergent opportunity that helped you become a better version of yourself.
- What is your current deliberate strategy to pursue your dreams?
- What is a current emergent opportunity which you are considering whether or not to pursue?