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Leading a company isn’t rocket science. But the two fields have an important lesson in common

Laurie Leshin, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is working on a $5 billion mission to one of Jupiter’s moons. But there’s something any leader can learn from her experience.

Leading a company isn’t rocket science. But the two fields have an important lesson in common
[Source photo: Laurie Leshin, Director of JPL [Photo: JPL/NASA]]

Hello and welcome to Modern CEO! I’m Stephanie Mehta, CEO and chief content officer of Mansueto Ventures. Each week this newsletter explores inclusive approaches to leadership drawn from conversations with executives and entrepreneurs, and from the pages of Inc. and Fast Company. If you received this newsletter from a friend, you can sign up to get it yourself every Monday morning.

Laurie Leshin helps build “modern cathedrals.” As director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the research and development lab federally funded by NASA and managed by the California Institute of Technology, Leshin leads more than 6,000 employees and contractors who design and manage space exploration missions. When I visited Leshin at JPL headquarters in Pasadena earlier this month, scientists were getting ready to transport the Europa Clipper, a solar-powered spacecraft that will explore one of Jupiter’s moons, for launch from Kennedy Space Center in October.

The $5 billion mission, which aims to determine whether Europa can support life, started as a concept in 2013, and the spacecraft—which spans 100 feet with its solar arrays deployed—will reach Jupiter’s orbit in 2030. “Missions like Europa Clipper—I call them modern cathedrals,” Leshin says. “They are generational quests.”


Few leaders engage in that kind of multigenerational planning. Futurist Amy Webb, who often helps corporations with strategy, bemoans the “one-, three-, or five-year strategic plans that have become a staple within most organizations” or the arbitrary target dates—usually a year ending in “0”—companies set as benchmarks.

JPL’s inherent longtermism helps with employee retention. Many scientists, engineers, technologists, and others who support JPL’s missions “want to see them through to fruition,” Leshin says. But she notes that some employees want to work on faster missions and might find more gratification working on projects such as CADRE, a trio of autonomous mini rovers that will map the moon next year. “It was designed and built in a couple of years, which is very fast by NASA standards,” she says.

Leshin, who became JPL’s first female director in May 2022 after stints as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, dean of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Science, and leadership roles at NASA, recognizes that most corporations don’t operate the way JPL does. But she does see one key similarity: “I think all great organizations are mission driven. [JPL] Is literally driven by space missions, but our mission is expanding knowledge through exploration,” she says. “We’re able to articulate to our teams why we’re doing what we’re doing and the benefits to society. And I would hope most companies can articulate something similar.”

How does your company articulate mission? Do you infuse your corporate brand with purpose and emotional connection? Fast Company’s Brands That Matter program celebrates companies that have infused their values into their brands. The final deadline is June 7, and companies may apply here.


For many of us Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, and for me, that means it is time to start compiling my summer reading list. Please send your recommendations, and I’ll share my picks and yours in an upcoming newsletter.

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