One of the most fascinating of Apollo missions is the one that history knows as “a successful failure”, Apollo 13. Forming the plot of one of my favourite movies, this famous mission saw Jim Lovell and his crew deal with the danger and adversity of serious malfunctions and precarious life support problems to return home safely. And the same man who directed the Apollo 11 moon landings also directed Apollo 13′s flight and rescue, Gene Kranz.
Kranz’s inimitable style and depth of leadership was the key factor in Apollo 13′s safe return as he led the efforts of thousands of people who were striving to bring the three stricken astronauts.
“Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
Odyssey, the name given to Apollo 13′s command module capsule, was a complex beast of a machine. It had literally millions of systems, which meant that it had literally millions of things that could go wrong. When one of the oxygen tanks exploded, it caused problems and failures in countless other systems, and it wasn’t clear exactly what had happened or why it had happened. Nobody onboard Odyssey or at mission control in Houston had any idea of what was happening, except for one thing: The spacecraft was dying, and if they didn’t do something quickly, the astronauts would die too.
When there are millions of pieces to a jigsaw, it’s difficult to pin point causes and effects amid the chaos of strange, broken behaviour, and Kranz knew that a human tendency during times of crisis and time pressure is to fill in the gaps with educated guesses and intuition. The problem with that is that it isn’t acceptable when human lives are at stake. So, in one of the back rooms at mission control, with his very best engineers and mission controllers gathered, he gave them a wonderfully simple, yet critically important, parameter for their rescue efforts. “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
Every problem has a solution, but reaching that solution requires a methodical, logical approach, not an emotional, worry-filled guessing game. When a problem is understood, it starts to become clear what can and can’t be done, what is within and without our control, where help is needed, and where help can be provided.
“Unfortunately, we’re not landing on the moon.”
From the moment Odyssey’s oxygen tank exploded, the astronauts and mission controllers had to improvise a new mission: Get Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert home safely. Part of that improvised mission included using the engine on Aquarius (Apollo 13′s lunar lander) in ways it hadn’t be used before; correcting trajectory, adjusting speed etc. Upon consultation with the designers of that engine, they said that it wasn’t designed for that kind of use, it was designed to land on the moon. Kranz’s response? “Unfortunately, we’re not landing on the moon. I don’t care what something was DESIGNED to do; I care about what it CAN do.” And so as the mission controllers and systems engineers got to work solving the many problems, Kranz inspired “out of the box” thinking and encouraged creativity in problem solving.
Look at our systems, processes, parts, materials, and other items on hand, and ask if they can be used to solve problems that they weren’t designed to solve. Find ways to fit square pegs in round holes. So often, there are materials and skills and ideas right in front of us that are perfect for solving the problem at hand, but we must think outside of the box to see them.
“Failure is not an option.”
This is, perhaps, Kranz’s most iconic and memorable leadership value, but it has its roots in fear of loss and failure. Amongst the thousands of people working to bring the Apollo 13 crew home, there were those with negative predictions and defeatist attitudes. Particularly after losing three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire, some had thought it was only a matter of time until another disaster occurred that claimed human lives. Gene Kranz was having none of it. “We’ve NEVER lost an American in space, and we’re sure as hell not losing one on my watch. Failure is not an option.”
If failure is viewed as a viable, acceptable outcome, it starts to factor in to the equation. By ruling failure out, it forces tenacious, dedicated, resilient thinking and problem solving. With this mindset, if something can be accomplished, it will be accomplished. This is, in fact, the same tenacity and resilience that led to the many successful Apollo moon landings.
“Our finest hour.”
At one point during the multi-day ordeal, President Nixon called NASA leadership and asked for the odds on a successful return of the crew. Some of Kranz’s peers had outlooks that were somewhat less optimistic than Kranz himself. This was understandable; by the time Odyssey had made the long trip back to Earth’s vicinity, there were still multiple problems; a typhoon was forming in the oceanic recovery area, the heat shield may have been irreparably damaged, the parachutes used to slow the fall may be frozen solid. Clearly, there were still a lot of obstacles to overcome, and some of the pessimists voiced their opinions, believing that this could be the worst disaster NASA has ever faced. “With all due respect”, Kranz told the disbelieving, “I believe this will be our finest hour.”
Have you ever heard the saying “anyone can steer the ship when the seas are calm”? It’s entirely applicable to this very situation that Kranz faced. A good leader isn’t paid to coast; a good leader will earn his or her stripes, reputation, respect, and salary when the chips are down and the storm is in full swing. Victory is at its purest and most enjoyable in the face of adversity. Certainly, winning a soccer match 3-0 is great, but it’s even sweeter when you come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Kranz knew this. His resolve and steady leadership, determination and tenacity, responsiveness and empowerment all fed his team the motivation and inspiration and leadership they needed to win the game against all odds. And the victory trophy was three fellow citizens of the planet earth returned safely from the brink of death.
Kranz’s legacy to us as leaders is simple but extremely powerful and effective. Work the problem. Be creative. Expect success. Believe the best is yet to come.