Leadership Principles from Apollo 13

Leadership Principles from Apollo 13

Failure is Not an Option

Apollo 13 was on its way to the Moon in April of 1970 when it experienced an explosion which damaged the oxygen system. For 3 days, 3 astronauts’ lives were at stake. Eugene Kranz was the leader responsible for leading the effort to get these astronauts home. For an in depth description of the Apollo 13 mission, see this Wikipedia article.

Here is a clip from the movie Apollo 13. Look for leadership examples in this movie clip.

What leadership did you see exhibited in this video?

In his book The Leadership Moment, cialis Michael Useem identifies several aspects of leadership that were crucial to Kranz’s success in returning the Apollo 13 crew safely to Earth.

Alleviating the Doom

Kranz battled against pessimism. Ground crew members warned “we’re losing it,” “we’re going down” and “we are at a point of losing everybody and everything.” Kranz quickly and firmly put an end to the pessimism. He exhorted his team “let’s everybody keep cool, let’s solve the problem.” He was clear in his expectation that “we don’t concede failure” and “we will never surrender.”

Optimists define bad things that happen to them in terms of causes which are temporary, specific, and changeable. Pessimists define the bad things that happen to them in terms of causes which are permanent, pervasive, and personal. See Martin Seligman’s book on Learned Optimism for more information.

Here is Martin Seligman’s talk on Ted.

Making Fast, Accurate Decisions

Kranz listened to people and encouraged different viewpoints. However, time was a scarce commodity. There was no time for analysis paralysis.

Organizing for Optimal Decisions

Once the crisis revealed itself, Kranz quickly reconfigured the organization to focus on the problem. He pulled one flight control team out of its normal role to work exclusively on finding solutions. He moved staff from team to team to bring in the specific knowledge, skills and experience he needed. Once in place, Kranz provided the team direction and then got out of the way to let them work. As Kranz explained “My job was basically to orchestrate all the players, recognize the problems, point people in the direction if we had more than one way to do a job, get the players to bring their stuff in, listen to them, and send them back.”

In the end, Apollo 13 and its crew splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. Kranz’s strong leadership proved to be the key factor in the mission’s safe conclusion. As Kranz later said “Firmness at the helm was the only thing that was going to get us through.”

The story of Kranz, his team on the ground and the astronauts in the spacecraft is told in Tom Hanks’ movie Apollo 13. The movie is a great study in how to lead in a crisis. The famous line from the movie “failure is not an option” sums up how Engene Kranz approached his crisis.

As a leader, what opportunities do you have to:

Alleviate the doom?
Make fast accurate decisions?
Organize for optimal decisions?

About Dale Perryman

Conduct workshops and seminars on leadership, management, and employee development. Founder of Center for Organizational Learning. Co-founder and creator of MyMeetingPro, a suite of apps for iPhone and iPad that create simply effective meetings. Specialties include leading change, meeting facilitation, developing R&D leadership, merger integration, and social media marketing. Enjoy playing poker and stock investing in spare time.