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NCLS 2023: Jared Isaacman says leaders must empower their teams

Jared Isaacman, CEO of Shift4 Payments and mission commander of Polaris Dawn, addresses cadets during his fireside chat at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., Feb. 23, 2023. He shares his experience building high performance teams with National Character and Leadership Symposium attendees. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

By Tali Burress
U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications 

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Jared Isaacman, pilot, civilian astronaut and CEO of Shift4 payments, received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his U.S. Air Force Academy’s National Character and Leadership Symposium fireside chat.  

Isaacman shared why leadership and teamwork secured his journey to commanding the world’s first all-civilian mission to space and involvement in the Polaris Program. 

The civilian astronaut noted there are many factors involved in building a cohesive team.  

The importance of self-awareness

Isaacman said good leaders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They need to look at how they handled situations in the past and examine if their actions yielded desired outcomes.  

“Whether being part of a team or a leader of a team, I think being incredibly self-aware is pretty important,” he continued. “I think we’ve all encountered teammates and leaders that were just jerks and they probably didn’t realize they were and that’s a problem. The hard part is that a lot of people don’t realize when they are a bad teammate or they are a bad leader.” 

Cadet 3rd Class Sophia Stewart said Isaacman’s keynote motivated her to look inwards when considering her role as a leader or team member.  

“My biggest takeaway is the importance of self-awareness,” said Stewart. “If my team is struggling, it is easier to blame everyone else rather than look at how my own actions impacted the group.”  

Jared Isaacman speaks with Cadet 1st Class Garrett Greenwood on stage at Arnold HallJared Isaacman speaks with Cadet 1st Class Garrett Greenwood on stage at Arnold Hall, U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., Feb. 23, 2023. Isaacman is this year’s Muse Family Foundation keynote. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley) 

Leadership means living up to the expectation

When it comes to being a leader, Isaacman noted that once you commit to leading a team, you also accept the obligations that come with the commitment.  

“I don’t think you can choose to say you want to embark on a commercial space mission and be a bad leader,” said Isaacman. “To me, once you’ve made that choice, you find a way to deliver. That means being inspirational when you have to be inspirational. It’s navigating challenging times when things seem to go the wrong way. You no longer have the choice to not live up to the expectation.” 

Stepping up to the plate and showing up for your team is important to Stewart.  

“Hearing from a leader who has experience building high-performance teams was incredible,” she said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to see Jared Isaacman at NCLS. When I leave the Academy I also want to be a leader who has the confidence to make challenging decisions, but also the humility to take ownership of team mistakes and failures. I want to be a leader that can be trusted, entirely.” 

The keys to motivating and empowering a team  

Isaacman said leaders need to provide their team members with clear processes and procedures. This enables them to execute tasks quickly and not be needlessly delayed or impaired in the progress they are trying to make.  

“Empower employees and team members,” he explained. “They may have to follow procedures but they can execute very quickly and with urgency.” 

Furthermore, he pointed out it is difficult to motivate people to do things they do not want to do if they do not like you.  

“You want to get things done,” said Isaacman. “You want to work with people who are very inspiring and are good communicators. People that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, being in the trenches with you, and are generally likeable.” 

Watch Isaacman’s full presentation on YouTube. Read about the crew of Polaris Dawn taking the AM-490 training at the Academy.