Apollo 13 and the Lessons of Leadership.

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The other night, I had the opportunity to see Tom Hanks again in the movie Apollo 13. It is a gripping story, the chronicles of Apollo 13.

For those not old enough to have lived through it, a story of shooting for a landing on the moon, suffering an explosion on the spacecraft on the way to the moon, not landing on the moon, and then limping home to Earth with a mere 1% re-entry angle to save the three lives on the spacecraft. In other words, a “successful failure.”

But, it wasn’t a failure. It was a successful demonstration of leadership in a crisis, with teamwork between “headquarters” in Houston and the “field” in the spacecraft.

From understanding the plight of the spacecraft, to knowing what needed to be done, to creating a CO2 converter out of materials only on the spacecraft, the flight is a clear lesson in how to do crisis management.

Here are the lessons:

  • A strong leader defines the parameters. In spite of all the negative talk, the leader defines the mission. “Failure is not an option.”
  • A strong leader respects the judgment of the specialty areas. “From my position, that’s the only answer.” And, “without power, the crew has nothing.” Too often in today’s corporate environment, we don’t respect the business judgment of those who are actually doing the work. Right?
  • Creativity is defined by constraints. To create an additional CO2 converter, “we need to build a converter from these parts.” A life-saving piece of equipment built out of what was on the spacecraft. Start with duct tape.
  • We think while we act. It wasn’t a situation where it was “Act, act, act.” It was “if we do this, another thing will happen and people will die.” The consequences of our actions here on the ground meant something. Critical thinking of the consequences of our actions took place in the middle of the crisis.
  • People make the difference. In the end, there were no processes, no six sigma insights, no ISO9000 following of processes. What was in the book was important — but a reference. What was needed was “what will work now?” Only “executive intelligence” can provide that answer.

Of course, businesses are not always in crisis. But that’s not the point. The points are:

  • How often does your leadership define the parameters of your work?
  • How often does your leadership respect — and follow — your good business judgment as the person in the trenches doing the work?
  • How often are we to simply solve a problem without explanation of the constraints that limit our options — and increase our creativity?
  • How often do we take the moment to consider the consequences of our actions? How often do we simply look at the process flows, the handbook that tells us what to do, and shut down the very Cubicle Warriors working the process every day?

You see, in the end, it is a question of being a leader while trusting the judgment of the very people who are working for you.

And in my experience, the trust is simply not there.

  • […] posts here on Cube Rules is one that I wrote a year ago after watching the Apollo 13 movie again: Apollo 13 and the Lessons of Leadership. I thought it was a revealing look at both the drama of the moment and how the crisis was managed. […]

  • Scot Herrick says:

    True enough, Andrew. The real challenge of leadership is letting people do what they do best and listen to the results with an ear to the results.

    And getting the impediments out of the way is a great addition to this list. Thanks.

  • If you ask most leaders ‘Do you trust the people who work for you to deliver?ā€™ I think the answer you would get in the majority of cases is ‘yes, absolutely’. However, quite often, the leaders action is the complete opposite. They micro-control, they restrict, they lay down the law, and they interfere. They think by acting that way they are being a leader.

    A great leader lets their staff perform. Stop getting in their way, stop looking over their shoulders. In fact, the best thing a leader can do is help the staff become more efficient by removing ‘blockages’ which stop them providing a great service.


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