At this year’s Association for Legal Administrators annual conference in Toronto, the focus lies heavily on our ever-changing profession. And today, Commander Mark E. Kelly opened the keynote presentation by talking about his own evolving career: from a marine engineering student to Naval aviator to NASA shuttle pilot and now to author and supporter of his wife, former Sen. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords.

Com. Kelly talked about his time at Navy flight school, when his first solo mission required him to land his plane on a ship. After fits and starts, he completed the task. He hadn’t missed the ship, but he certainly wasn’t the star pilot in his program. When his flight reviewer asked him if he really wanted to be a pilot, he answered yes. Then he used this experience as an opportunity to change, to double down, to notice the details and figure out how to improve. He went on to use this same formula throughout his career. For example, as a fighter pilot returning from a bombing run, he chose to fly over Iran, instead of flying back through enemy fire. He and his co-pilot were nearly shot down by friendly fire, mistaken as an enemy plane. From this experience, he learned how clear communication around change is essential.

Com. Mark Kelly signing autographs of his book at the annual ALA conference in Toronto

Com. Mark Kelly signing autographs of his book at the annual ALA conference in Toronto

As a four-time flight commander of a space shuttle during a time when NASA was in the midst of the Challenger and Columbia crashes, he shared with attendees one of NASA’s mottos in the flight control room: None of us are as dumb as all of us. In other words, decisions by committee aren’t always the best. Innovation must not be overshadowed by the collective, comfortable decision-making process.

As incredible as it was to hear Com. Kelly speak, he spent equal time describing his over-achieving, service-oriented wife, Sen. Giffords. In 2011, Sen. Giffords was critically injured by a gunshot wound to the head. She recovered some of her ability to walk, speak, read and write, but still has difficulty. Faced with some of the biggest changes that life can place on anyone, she has been a model on how to persevere and prosper. As Sen. Giffords stated to a standing-room only crowd, “My spirit is as strong as ever, fighting to make the world a better place…Be a leader. Set an example.”

*Photograph by Andrew Tolson, Reprinted with permission by the Association of Legal Administrators,

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