Leadership: Interview of Gail Williams – Leadership Alchemy


Interviewed by Seth Kahan, April 2006

1995-96 Gail Williams of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center supported the President’s Commission of Advisors on Science and Technology, and the National Science and Technology Council. This private- and public-sector collaboration worked on establishing policy and leveraging resources in the pursuit of a national science and technology agenda.

Today Gail is the Program Manager of NASA Goddard’s Leadership Alchemy Program, a unique 9-month program that uses a whole-person approach to leadership. It encompasses individual and team learning, and provides participants with mentoring and coaching.

Gail and I met at her home on a gorgeous beautiful spring day under the massive maple tree in her front yard.


Gail: In Leadership Alchemy we use the term, Ambassadors of Positive Change, to describe what our intent for the participants. Through a specially developed holistic approach, we help them become more self-aware, more powerful and influential leaders with excellent skills for collaboration. The program, now in its 5th year, is building a community of future-focused leaders who want to work together to improve our culture and organization.

Seth: Tell me how you accomplish this. What do you do in the program?

Gail: We create a learning environment where people can learn about leadership by being leaders in a like-minded community of committed learners.

We also emphasize five key practices that are essential to leadership, reading and reflection, appreciative inquiry, emotional intelligence, action learning, and developing the presence of a leader. Leaders must be able to influence and energize a powerful group of followers aligned with the leader’s goals, intentions, and vision of the future. Leaders, therefore, must learn to use themselves and their way of being as the instrument of connection and influencing change. We believe leadership is more than what one knows, it is about one’s way of being.

We put great emphasis on learning somatically and emotionally, as well as intellectually. This means learning how to set a particular mood and creating an environment of lightness. We are challenging our participants to be “10 times bolder” as one of our program’s primary partners, Dr. Kanu Kogod, says. In order to do this, we need to create a safe environment with the right kind of mood so that people feel loved as they are being pushed in the direction they have declared they want to go.

When this year’s class graduates, we will have about 100 grads. To a person, when you ask participants what they value about the program, they include the somatic practices. These are the techniques principal-ly taught by Scott Coady, another primary partner. These techniques enable people to be more powerful and centered in stressful situations, more present, and more discerning about where they put their attention.

Seth: Ways of being, presence, and attention training… what you are describing is very different from traditional leadership workshops. Help me understand what you are talking about.

Gail: The attention training consists of focusing on one’s breath and, by doing so, enables one to generate more trust and authentic relationships by being fully present, especially in trying conditions. When leaders are fully present for difficult or critical conversations, it’s easier for them to know and express their authentic response. They can do this in ways that minimize emotional tension, even make the other people feel appreciated. This fosters a deeper, richer connection from which amazingly constructive solutions often emerge.

Linguistics is also very important. In the program we help people to focus on the language of leadership, teaching them to use their language more precisely. We believe that language does more than describe – it is generative. By that we mean that language creates our reality and our identity.

We provide experiential exercises so they can reflect on how they use language, e.g., how to make a powerful and clear request. This impacts both the quality of their thinking process and their internal emotional state. Leadership Alchemy participants think about their thinking.

Seth: How do you prepare people for the inevitable conflicts they will face?

Gail: When something is not working, we teach people how to declare a “breakdown.” When things are not going the way they were anticipated, or become problematic in any respect, we use this technique to bring it from the background to the foreground. This makes it possible to have a healthy and sometimes fierce conversation. Conflict is not inherently bad. If done appropriately with the right tone of voice, the right delivery, the right approach, it can become a process that brings increased health to an organization or relationship.

Seth: Gail, in order to carry out your program you need to have the full engagement of your trainers. The same is true for participants. They can’t just set time aside and show up. They have to give their all.

Gail: This is the only way to conduct this type of rigorous, transformational leadership program. We are clear with our instructors up front, and selective in choosing them. Our partners are the best in the business; we are very proud of that. Together we are a high-performing team who model the behaviors and way of being we seek for our participants.

Participants are provided with the tools they need to create success. They are pushed to take risks, pushed to be bold, all for the sake of achieving their personal best and creating positive change. All of this is done in the context of their individualized leadership visions, providing them with powerful learning intentions. Every participant has a stake in their own success, they have the support of their cohort learners, as well as the program instructors, personal coaches, and mentors from inside the organization. This fosters group and individual excellence – a liberating structure!


Goddard Space Flight Center on the web: www.nasa.gov/goddard

Gail Williams’ email: Gail.S.Williams@nasa.gov

The Leadership Alchemy Program is mentioned in the forthcoming book, Wake Me Up When the Data is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results. It will be released in September 2006, by Jossey-Bass Publishers.