Find the Katherines
Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson turns 99 years young this week.
She was born August 26, 1918. Her life has been nothing short of extraordinary. No one could have predicted her success when she born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the youngest of four children. Her father worked various jobs at the Greenbrier Hotel. Her mother was a teacher. As a young girl, she loved to count and showed a strong interest in math. Her abilities were recognized, and she entered college at fifteen and graduated at eighteen.
Starting her career as a teacher, she later moved to work at the Langley Memorial Laboratory at NASA.
As an African American woman in the early 1950s, she began to break one barrier after another. She overcame considerable sexism and racism, distinguishing herself through her work ethic and genius in the field of analytic geometry.
Her early work led to the discovery that larger planes disrupt air currents and can cause smaller aircraft to crash long afterwards, bringing a change to flight patterns and saving lives. She famously worked on the calculations that helped bring Senator John Glenn back from the first American orbital mission.
Senator Glenn trusted her over the first IBM mainframe computers. He wouldn’t okay the mission until Katherine okayed the math.
From the moon landing to the Space Shuttle program, Katherine was there, making an impact on it all.
All this extraordinary history, and Katherine’s struggles and triumphs, is beautifully told in Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. (If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, put them on your must-read and watch list! It documents a shameful period in history, but one that must be remembered. I found it incredibly inspiring to demonstrate the inherent evil, bias and prejudice we must always fight against.)
“Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.” –Margot Lee Shetterly
Learn from Katherine’s Extraordinary Career
So, on her 99th birthday, we can learn many lessons from her career success:
- She learned continuously.
- She cultivated her unique gifts.
- She lived on the edge of her comfort zone.
- She demonstrated courage in the face of racism and sexism.
- She overcame others’ false, negative perceptions.
- She trail-blazed thinking and challenged tradition.
- She broke barriers mathematically, socially, and academically.
No wonder she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She not only contributed to the USA’s success in space, but her courage, tenacity, and determination changed people, perceptions, and processes all along the way.
“Katherine knew: once you took the first step, anything was possible.” –Margot Lee Shetterly
The Leadership Lesson Behind the Story
But there’s something else that strikes me as I reflect on her lifetime of achievement. It’s something that, as a leader, no one tells you about in school or in classes. It’s something that, as a business leader and CEO, I ponder quite a bit.