NASA astronaut Captain Victor Glover on leadership, breaking barriers, and what’s next in space exploration

NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy Captain Victor Glover joined the Presidential Leadership Scholars to discuss the consequential moments that shaped his extraordinary career.

When we study people like former presidents, business executives, military colonels, and other influencers, we notice that their entire lives were made up of consequential moments that helped shape them as leaders.   

That’s what happened to NASA astronaut and U.S. Navy Captain Victor Glover. A boy from Los Angeles who simply wanted to play football and be the next Marcus Allen ended up breaking multiple barriers and leading the way for so many as the first Black man to live on the International Space Station. Today, he continues to set an important example as he represents all of humanity in his role at NASA. What many people don’t see are the countless lessons, tireless hard work, and enlightening moments along the way in Captain Glover’s story. He recently joined the 2023 Presidential Leadership Scholars to explore these lessons. 

While he doesn’t recall a specific moment in time where he thought he might have the qualities of a leader, Captain Glover acknowledged that the first step in his leadership journey was discipline. He cites sports as the best leadership training he received growing up – having discipline, being a good teammate, having commitment to something larger than oneself, and being coachable were all catalysts for his career. Service was also at the center of his childhood, and he credits his grandmother for teaching him the importance of serving others.  

“You have to start by being able to lead yourself,” he said. “And so I focused on these missions and these great things I had the opportunity to do. Team sports, academics, service to my community – those things shaped me along the journey.”

Having mentors and a support system have also been key to Captain Glover’s success. His fifth grade teacher was the first person to ever talk to him about what an engineer does; his father planted the seed that he could become an astronaut based on his interest in adrenaline-packed and challenging activities as a kid; a talk from Pam Melroy, one of only two female astronauts to command a space shuttle, helped him understand what that title really meant; and a relationship with his professor at  California Polytechnic State University – in whom he saw himself – made him believe that he could become all those great things.  

“These people who have invested in me – my own living board of directors – these people have believed in me in times where I wasn’t even thinking that far out,” said Captain Glover. 

When we think about the challenges we might face as leaders, we don’t often consider ourselves as one of our own biggest obstacles. Captain Glover grew up in a community in which there was major distrust of the government, specifically the police and the military. He never saw himself in those types of roles, and so when West Point and the Naval Academy knocked on his door to offer him scholarships to play football and join the wrestling team, he turned them down. The culture and community in which he was immersed told him that there was no place for him in the U.S. military, and he believed it at first. Today, he’s focused on making sure young people don’t make that same mistake.  

“The biggest barrier that I ever faced was myself,” he said. “The only thing that can truly stop you is believing that you can’t or won’t or shouldn’t. That idea of not belonging, not seeing yourself in aspirational roles is damaging.”  

Captain Glover also speaks a lot about living in the middle – it’s one of his biggest pieces of advice for young leaders. Life is most joyful when one avoids the highest highs and lowest lows, he says. He describes joy not as a constant state of being extremely happy but as doing something you love, knowing your family is taken care of, having the means to serve, and leaving a legacy. In true astronaut form, he brought it back to science to make his point. 

“Life is like a sine wave,” he said. “You’ve got these extremes, and then you’ve got this middle. We always think about the edges, but my goal is to focus on the middle and try to reduce that amplitude of the highs and lows and just be centered.” 

On science, Captain Glover also discussed what’s next for space travel. He shared that the world is currently experiencing one of the most exciting and accelerated moments in space travel and exploration as parties work to commercialize lower orbit. We’re going to see hotels and tourists in space, more private astronauts, and more civilian missions. He also urged that while it won’t bring world peace or end world hunger, it will give us a little more perspective to humanity and help the world move forward together.  

“It helps us feel more like community because we really are,” Captain Glover said. “When you leave this Earth and live off of it for a while, you see it as all of our home. When I was on the mission, I knew I would miss my family; I did not expect to miss the planet. Is it moving the needle for humanity to feel like one community? That’s what I’m hoping will be a byproduct of advanced space travel.” 

Captain Glover also shared what he sees as one of our society’s greatest needs: For people – especially young people – to slow down and think before they react. 

“We need to pause and to get comfortable spending time with information,” he said. “Social media is making us think that we get informed in very small bites, but we need to spend time with a topic, to spend time with our legacy, to spend time with information, to pause and get in touch with whatever the topic is… That would reduce violence and overreacting, and health and emotional, mental, and physical well-being would increase.”  

These lessons in leadership like identifying mentors and support systems, listening and thinking before reacting, and service to others all speak to the journey of the Presidential Leadership Scholars and are at the center of the program’s thesis. Captain Glover serves as a reminder that while these principles come up in the mundane challenges and everyday experiences of life and may not seem significant at the time, they’re sometimes the building blocks to creating our world’s most influential leaders.