Teaching Us about More Than Just Planets

Imagine you had worked years on a discovery, putting in countless hours, and then just before you were going to make your announcement to the world somebody beat you to it.  How would you respond?  Would you send a heartfelt letter of congratulations?  And what would you do if you learned shortly thereafter that the person who beat you cheated?

These were the challenges facing Mike Brown, a Caltech astronomer who in 2003 was just about to announce his discovery of 2003 EL61, a planet-like object in the Kuiper belt way-way out in space.  A few days before he was going to make his announcement, Spanish astronomer Jose-Luis Ortiz beat him to it.

Brown was crushed.  All that work and someone else would get credit; however he was able to compose himself and write a very nice note of congratulations to Ortiz.  Then a few weeks later when Brown learned that Ortiz had stolen his discovery, Brown handled the situation admirably.

He did not respond when emotion would have poisoned his words.  Instead, he took his time, spoke to colleagues and advisors, and then responded in an appropriate way through the right channels.

Mike Brown also faced another difficult test in 2005 after he discovered Eris, our tenth planet, which was slightly larger than Pluto.  Brown challenged the idea of what defined a planet, and his work led the International Astronomical Association to agree that Pluto and Eris were really not planets at all.  Then Brown was inundated with hate mail from simply doing what he knew was right.

Brown was named one of Time magazines 100 People Who Shape the World due to his scientific work and the way he conducted himself through the controversy.

We may never make Time’s list of Influential People, but we can act in a similar way as Mike Brown when we receive criticism.  Knee-jerk reactions rarely serve us.  Effective leaders do not leave a trail of words they wish they had never uttered.  Effective leaders pace their response appropriately to get it right the first time.

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