More Apollo 13 Lessons on Leadership

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One of the more popular 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. There were leadership characteristics that simply stood out, especially in comparison today in both business and government.

Looking at the world today, I think there are more lessons from the “successful failure” that was Apollo 13.

Truth to Power

The mission leadership both wanted to hear and listen to what everyone on the team had to say to save the mission. No one person knows everything and has the answers. There had to be enough trust for employees to speak truth to power. More than once, the movie showed people telling the director that unless everything was shut down now, they wouldn’t make it back. The mission director not only listened to the advice, but did it.

Can you tell truth to power in your work? Can you tell your management team that something is wrong in your area and to fix it? Can you speak openly to your management team? On my site, I counsel Cubicle Warriors to be careful about what is said to management – so my answer to truth to power is that it mostly cannot be done. That’s a shame.

Experts in their area solved their problems

When power was an issue, a sub-team was formed to go solve it. They were the best and brightest on the team to solve the reentry power up issue and they were expected to solve the problem.

When the craft to land on the moon needed to be used as a life raft to get the astronauts home, the team worked to figure out how that would be done. Interestingly, the only person trying to cover their ass on the lunar module was the corporate guy who built it. That should tell you a lot about business.

Today, people expect to perform their role…and ten others. We expect to solve issues that are not in our primary area of expertise while other experts solve different problems. They are not available because of workload, so you get to wing it solving an issue. There is no “bench” in business, with people able to back up others. When management teams don’t assign the right people for the job, everyone suffers.

There is a time to think and a time to do

Even in a crisis, the team would stop the doing and get together to look at the big picture to find out if they were on the right track. Drawing the moon and earth on chalkboards and showing how far the spacecraft could come so far gets you focused again on what you were doing. And what yet needs done.

You would think today in business there would be time to think. We attend meeting after meeting, conference call after conference call and yet wonder when we should think. Today, if you have nothing to do, the pundits say to “look busy” for the sake of, well, looking busy. There is no reward for thinking during a down time. There is no encouragement for thinking about your work and how you go about doing your work. Instead, you must always be doing.

Rent Apollo 13 again. This time, instead of watching the gripping drama of trying to get the astronauts home, watch the leadership styles and how “management” works with “employees.” Then ask yourself if you, as an employee, could perform your job like the people in Apollo 13.

What would be your answer?

  • It probably doesn’t hurt having some of the smartest employees on Earth either.

    • @Ben – True enough. I’d suggest, though, that just because you have a lot of smart people in the room doesn’t translate to effective teaming and problem solving. It could just as easily turn out to be an “intelligence” match where everyone loses.

      Culture in a group means something. These people showed that their culture included push back, listening, deciding and doing when the crisis came. You don’t get that over night.

      Thanks for the comment, Ben!

  • It was a pretty good movie. I like how you approach it from the management aspect. That probably would be one of the best managed projects in history. I should rewatch the filmi from this standpoint.

    Great article.

    • @Ben – The interesting thing that happened with me is that it never dawned on my to watch the movie from the management/employee perspective until last year. Of course, going through some situations at work that matched up to the movie probably got me going that direction.

      But the management style is different. It was effective. And that leadership from management and the ability of employees to speak truth to power has eroded.

      Thanks for the comment; I appreciate it.

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