Remembering C. Gordon Little, 1924-2017

I returned to my desk this morning after a month out of the office to the (belated) unhappy news that C. Gordon Little had passed away. Forty-four years ago, Gordon took a risk and gave me my first science-management position, in the process changing my life forever… and forever for the better. I will always be grateful, and words be always be inadequate.

Speaking of words, I blogged here in LOTRW about Gordon and his leadership and vision a while back, in December 2010. The passage is reprinted below[1].

No getting around it. To be successful, leaders must:

dream a great dream, and share it.

My first professional experience with this – in fact, the experience that drove home this notion – came early in my career, in 1970. Up until that time I’d been working in what was then the Environmental Science Services Administration, in the Ionospheric Propagation Laboratory, in Boulder. Gordon Little, the Director of the Wave Propagation Laboratory, asked me to join him, just at the moment when ESSA was being folded into a new federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Ionospheric Propagation Laboratory was being calved into a new National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Gordon Little was and remains an extraordinary individual. A Brit (who became a U.S. citizen), he was born in China, the son of missionaries. He was Cambridge educated and would in time be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. His scientific and technical accomplishments over several decades were legion. However, please focus here on the remarkable step he took in 1967. He voluntarily stepped down from his position as director of ESSA’s Institute for Telecommunication Sciences and Aeronomy, which comprised multiple laboratories. Why? In order to form a new, remote-sensing Wave Propagation Laboratory within that complex.

Would you and I have done that? Probably not. On the surface it looked like a huge cut to his former considerable responsibilities. Why give all that up?

But over time the new laboratory, though small, proved to be a cornucopia of new tools for observing the oceans and atmosphere and learning their secrets. The work there spawned a range of innovative optical remote sensing technologies, the wind profiler, the CODAR for measuring ocean currents, improvements to weather radar, development of active and passive acoustic probing techniques, important algorithms for the inversion of radiometric data, and much more.[1] In addition, WPL scientists and their kit contributed to major field experiments worldwide. What the laboratory didn’t develop in-house, it adapted and improved upon from laboratories around the world. And it gave back in equal measure. For decades, the Wave Propagation Laboratory, though small, played a seminal role in advancing the discipline of remote sensing and its applications.

What made WPL special? Gordon was a leader! He had a vision. His vision was that remote-sensing, as opposed to in situ observations, would be the primary means going forward for observing the atmosphere and oceans. But his vision didn’t begin and end there. The key to his considerable success as the director and founder of WPL was that he saw remote-sensing not as an end in itself, but as a key to understanding the Earth, its oceans, and its atmosphere, and through that means, benefiting society. Most importantly, he didn’t keep that dream to himself. He shared it, every day, every week, every year, with the hundred-some staff of the laboratory, and with other scientists, from every agency, every university, and every nation.

At first this part escaped me. For some time I used to think to myself that Gordon was a great boss – that he combined vision and integrity, and I’d be happy to work for someone who had either one. At the time I thought he had just one flaw. He was always repeating himself!

Then I realized: all of us in the laboratory (and indeed, those visitors) were learning a catechism. Like Gordon, we came to believe that there was nothing wrong with the world, no social ill, that couldn’t be cured by more and better remote sensing. We knew and could recite the four great pillars of remote-sensing (theory, technique development, applications, and technology transfer). We knew the seven great advantages of remote-sensing over in-situ techniques. We bought in! If we could have, we’d have developed an “app” for microwave ovens (the term didn’t exist then), so that housewives could disable the safety interlock, open the door, point the microwave oven out the window, and get a quick Doppler-wind profile, and phone it in to a central location. Gordon not only had a dream; he shared it.

But note. Leaders need to have a great dream. It can’t be a little dream. It can’t be a shabby, self-serving dream. Instead, it should ennoble every hearer. It should elevate, inspire, energize. Gordon wasn’t thinking about how to get a bigger laboratory, or greater personal prestige, or become head of NOAA research, or even of NOAA itself. He’d already turned his back on all that. He saw how to make the world a better place. He made sure we were all thinking the same way.

So here’s the bottom line for you and me. We are all tempted, every day, to think small, to be content with and settle for a small, shabby, self-serving dream. Maybe it’s getting ahead. Maybe it’s getting through the day. Maybe it’s getting something for ourselves. Maybe it’s just keeping what we have. What’s worse, we’re all too often tempted to keep our dreams to ourselves. What if someone stole our idea and ran with it? And they got the credit? Or the prize? Where would we get another idea?

Don’t give in to these fears! The opposite is true. Remember Henry David Thoreau, who advised, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” And share that imagination. Your very act of sharing will stimulate other ideas and visions in their train. As you give away and share your very finest ideas, even better ideas will come to you.

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An early career scientist or engineer, looking to make  the world a better place? You’re dreaming a great dream! Seeking  a role model? You could do a lot worse than Gordon.

Would you like to honor the man’s memory? A memorial service for Gordon is coming up on Tuesday, July 25, at 2:00 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Boulder.

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[1] As well as in my book by the same name: Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like a Meteorologist Will Help Save the Planet, pp. 196-198.

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