How do you describe a man who has probed the depths of the sea, piloted jets, been launched twice into the stratosphere on the space shuttle, eyeballed the microscopic and contributed to the physical health of too many to count? Dr. Williams offers: “Just a curious kid from Saskatchewan”. Curious indeed.
Most doctors and scientists apply their specialized skills in relative anonymity. Yet among them are people whose character and performance so exceed the limits of their profession they can’t be ignored. Dr. Williams is one. A remarkable man who was not only a research scientist, professor and medical doctor when he drew the attention of the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, but a pilot too.
In seeking to join the space program, Dr. Williams was, in 1992, among 5300 to apply for astronaut training. One of just four selected, he soon joined the ranks of the fewer than 500 individuals chosen for a mission to push the limits of the final frontier. He flew twice, once on the space shuttle Columbia and once on Endeavor. All told he logged over 13 million miles in space and participated in groundbreaking research into microgravity and its effects on the brain and nervous system. His time on the International Space Station included three spacewalks setting a Canadian record, two of which he led. In a symbolic way they also represented Dr. Williams ongoing journey of discovery.
He assumed the prestigious role of Director of The Space & Life Sciences Directorate at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. And today, back in Canada, he is a Professor of Surgery at McMaster University involved in teaching, research and most notably, leading an initiative to bring the lessons of peak team performance to the clinical world as the Chief Medical Officer for Safety and Quality for the St. Joseph’s Healthcare System. A continuing testament to working and living beyond conventional limits.
In his frequent talks, Dr. Williams stresses that neither medicine nor space travel tolerates any margin for error. And, since both require being a member of a team, the ability to be both a good leader and follower can have life and death implications. Citing the principles of Leadership & Followership he acquired during his NASA training in preparation for the extreme challenges of spacewalking, Dr. Williams is convincing when he stresses there is no insignificant job on a team, whether that job is leading your team or playing a key supporting role.
It’s no surprise that audiences are swept away by his incredible tales. Yet it’s his message of meaningful discovery, contained in each and every human experience, that resonates with listeners of all backgrounds. Whether addressing an auditorium filled with corporate executives or students at a university, all who hear him come away with a renewed faith in his or her own unique ability to excel beyond boundaries.
So, from that curious kid from Saskatchewan the message is twofold: Each of us is greater than we believe. And, together we can exceed our limits to soar farther and higher than ever imagined.