Lessons in leadership, perseverance and improvisation, on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “we will go to the moon” speech. I detailed my thoughts of how I felt that inspirational speech is relevant to today’s COVID-19 crisis. This past weekend was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which happened eight years after JFK’s speech. The U.S. had already a year earlier in 1969 reached the moon with the Apollo 11 mission, “in this decade” as Kennedy aspired, and ahead of the U.S.S.R. The Apollo 13 mission had a much different result, but its story still draws a through-line directly back to Kennedy’s spirit of determination and innovation, embodied in the phrase “…that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
A ‘successful failure’
Most of you are probably familiar with the Apollo 13 mission that—due to an explosion and damage to the spacecraft—failed to land on the moon. But the craft didn’t come crashing down on the moon or back to earth. Instead, the crippled technology successfully ferried its crew safely around the moon and back home, due to the leadership, perseverance, innovation and hard work of the mission control crew in Houston. If you need a refresher, the 1995 Apollo 13 movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise is excellent work, and should be on everyone’s social-distancing list for a watch or re-watch. And an insightful new interview with the mission’s captain Jim Lovell was posted by USA Today this weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary.
Whether you are one of my fellow small business owners and entrepreneurs, or one of Elexicon’s clients or colleagues, I’m sure we’re all feeling uncertain and at least a little shaken right now—if not overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of this crisis’ impact on the economy. We’ve all been setting goals, and organizing the best our energies and skills. We’ve been planning our own versions of successful moon landings, and we’ve pulled some off.
But now the course that we were on has been obscured, and in some cases, seemingly erased.
No playbook, no blueprint
As I talked about in another recent post, we were holding “maps”—plans, projects, targets—for the territory our businesses and teams would traverse in 2020. Now that terrain has changed and we need new maps. The Apollo 13 mission team’s response to their sudden reversal of fate set a great example of how to rise to a challenge for which there was no playbook or blueprint, with resourcefulness and determination. Sometimes we do our best work by developing a well thought-out strategy, and then implementing that strategy to successfully reach an objective. But other times we need to respond to unexpected adversity. We need to set aside the original aspirations we had, let go of “what could have been,” and focus on what needs to be done now. In these moments, with these decisions we can still achieve our “finest hours.”
Here’s Ed Harris’ Gene Krantz* defusing any thought that “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” Instead, he delivers a counterfactual, that this team is going to adapt to the new reality, and “…this will be our finest hour.”
“We have a new mission”
Many of us entrepreneurs, business owners and team leaders are now throwing out our flight plans, and are faced with a new mission. “I don’t care what anything was designed to do, I only care about what it can do,” says Harris’ Krantz in this scene. In normal times, for all of us, this is counterintuitive. We envision, plan, design, and create products and processes to do a certain thing or produce a certain result. But when we’re faced with a seismic shift in outlook or an unexpected crisis, we need to decisively and creatively determine what our business, product or services can do to first survive and then thrive in a new way.
Creativity under constraints
I’ve always loved this scene where an ad hoc team “downstairs” at mission control needs to quickly devise a way to connect a square fitting to a round hole, to give the astronauts the carbon monoxide filtering they’ll need. They need to “fit this into this, using nothing but that,” with “that” being only the spare parts and gear available on the spacecraft. The sequence is a great example of creativity under constraints, and inventing a solution with limited resources. In different ways, we’ll all be facing new constraints on our processes, where before we typically had all the resources we’d need. Sometimes, it is from within constraints that true creativity and innovation happen, and new solutions are invented that we may have never thought of before.
Communication, trust, teamwork
Finally, this roughly 4-minute scene—terrifically written* and acted—depicts the flight crew exercising their problem-solving and leadership brainpower as a team. We all know how to deliver advice on subjects that we’re experts in, and how to be a good team player. But in times like these, we need to dig deeper, below all that stuff we read and learned, and into our instincts and guts. This scene is timeless, but is especially timely and relevant in the context of current events (whether we’re talking about leading our own businesses and teams, or our leaders in government):
- Communication: Loren Dean’s EECOM John Aaron, clearly and authoritatively arguing that “power is everything,” that the module’s electrical battery power needs to be shut down to be conserved for later. He states exactly why, and that has the data to back it up.
- Trust: Harris’ Gene Krantz to Dean’s John Aaron, “That’s the deal?” Then after a deliberative pause, “Okay, John, the minute we finish the burn, we’ll power down the L.E.M.” Krantz knows he’s not the smartest guy in the room and sets aside any need to prove that he is. Instead, he trusts their advice, puts a plan in motion based on that trust, and then sends them off to work with a little pep talk. But the trust he instilled was probably enough extra motivation already.
- Teamwork: Gary Sinise’s Ken Mattingly is called in to run the power simulations, to determine how to most efficiently bring the L.E.M. power down and then back up again. Mattingly requests that the simulator be “cold and dark” like it is up in the spacecraft, and he’ll need a flashlight. When he’s handed a random flashlight, Mattingly says “That’s not what they have up there … don’t give me anything they don’t have up there.” Even though the kind of flashlight is probably inconsequential to the power-up procedures, but Mattingly instinctually knows he needs to practically put himself in that cockpit with his teammates in order to precisely do his job.
While it’s no silver bullet for our anxiety, I hope that looking back on the early days of the U.S. space program provides some lessons in what we’re all capable of, and reminds us that perseverance, ingenuity, and sometimes improvisation are in our nation’s DNA.
*According to interviews with the astronauts and flight teams, and with the filmmakers, the Apollo 13 movie falls somewhere between being “firmly-” and “loosely-based” on actual events and characters. Some roles were composites, such as Ed Harris’ depiction of White Team Flight Director Gene Krantz, which also incorporated decisions made by Black Team Flight Director Glynn Lunney. Some quotes such as “Failure is not an option!” were added with artistic license for dramatic effect. Regardless, I find the movie’s dramatic portrayals to be an effective embodiment of the leadership, teamwork and problem solving that led to saving the astronauts’ lives. The movie captures the spirit of “toughness and competence” that the real-life Krantz would make a central theme of his autobiography (which, interestingly, Krantz went ahead and titled, “Failure is Not an Option”).
Revisiting inspirational quotes and speeches during these times? JFK’s “go to the moon” speech is a good one—especially the less-famous part of its most quoted sentence.
- An insightful presenter at a conference I attended a couple years ago drew my attention to this part of JFK’s speech.
Before I share my thoughts about an inspiring speech from 57 years ago, I’d like to thank all the medical professionals and caregivers who are on the front lines of this health crisis right now and truly inspiring us every day.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” — President John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, September 12, 1962
The first half of that quote gets printed onto motivational posters and placards, and is the oft-used sound bite in archival footage of President Kennedy, standing before a large crowd in Houston. I personally have always liked the second part, though. I interpret JFK’s words as stating that while the destination is putting a man on the moon, the journey to get there—to create, to innovate, to find bold solutions to new problems—is what will truly benefit the nation in the long term.
A few sentences later Kennedy inserts a mention of “winning,” and the fact that the U.S. did beat the U.S.S.R. to the moon in 1969 was a point of national pride. But the collaboration—the “meeting of the minds”—of the best entrepreneurs, experts, scientists and engineers led to a new era of technological advancements in health care, public safety, transportation, computing and more. And the journey that began with that speech still has not ended. To borrow another iconic quote from these events, the “giant leap for mankind.”
A thought for these times
I’m reminded of how we are now being forced to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While we as a nation did not “decide” to take this journey, and perhaps we were instead un-prepared in many ways, I think it’s important to remember that we as Americans and as humans are capable of re-inventing the world as we know it for the better.
Sometimes we are challenged to do so, like emerging mere decades after World War II with not only a powerful, greatest-nation-on-earth United States but also a rebuilt and productive Europe and Japan. Other times governments or entrepreneurs set a goal, like someday relying completely on autonomous vehicles to save time, lives and natural resources. I’ve been a skeptic of when and if a driverless society will happen, but I am very certain that the energies and skills involved in that quest have already led to safer vehicles today.
Now we face a new challenge, and this health and financial crisis may be the biggest we’ve seen as a nation and as a global community. On March 20, 2020 these events seem scarier than any world war or terrorist attack. We’re all looking for reassurance, and my article here can’t give you a whole lot of that. All I do offer to those who are reading this is a reminder that the United States has shown a great tendency for collaborating and innovating toward a long-term goal, with a complete acceptance that the journey to that goal will require a lot of hard work and heartache. Another passage just a bit later in Kennedy’s speech:
“We ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous, and dangerous, and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
We need to control the spread of, treat, and find a vaccine for COVID-19, that is no doubt the goal. And we must organize the best of all our skills and energies for the journey toward that goal and beyond. We can find better ways to minimize and control viruses. We can discover effective new ways to travel, educate and work, even as we return to our old airports, schools and offices. We can re-invent logistics and the supply chain. We can improve how we care for our elderly and protect our children. These are unprecedented times that will require unprecedented vision and innovation, and these qualities are embedded in our nation’s DNA.
When social distancing ends, we can also end cultural and political distancing. We can emerge from this less divided, and more whole. The years since our last all-encompassing crisis in 2008 have also been among our most divisive culturally and politically. But now it’s time to re-examine our shared DNA, to re-discover who we really are—a nation built on one moon shot after another.