Leadership Lessons from Mission Control

I never wanted to be an astronaut (which is probably a good thing because I am in no way qualified).  I was enthralled with the space program but my heroes were people like Flight Director Gene Kranz.  He was present for NASA’s brightest days and darkest hours.  I believe this was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with operations.  However, it wasn’t until recently that I fully understood the leadership example he set.  The words and actions of Mr. Kranz while at the helm of the Gemini and Apollo missions are some of the most profound examples of leadership under fire I have ever come across.   While we probably don’t hold the lives of astronauts and the hope of a nation on our shoulders, the leadership demonstrated by Gene Kranz can be an example of what every leader should strive to become.


Calm Is Key and Failure Is Not an Option

Let’s everybody keep cool. Let’s make sure we don’t do anything that’s going to blow our electrical power or cause us to lose fuel cell number two. Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing.
— Gene Kranz

Contrary to the Ron Howard film, there is no record of anyone saying “Failure is not an option” in mission control.  However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t implied.  When Apollo 13 reported they had a problem and mission control learned the capsule was losing power and oxygen, nobody at Mission Control displayed panic.   At the helm in Houston, with the lives of three astronauts in his hands and the eyes of the world on his actions, Kranz remained calm and collected.  He exuded an unwavering smooth confidence and instructed his controllers to call in support personnel.  They were going to solve this problem and they were going to do it the right way.  Everyone at Mission Control knew there wasn’t a question as to IF they would solve the problem only WHEN and HOW. They knew it because Gene believed it.


Speak Up

Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’
— Gene Kranz

Being a “no” man is hard.  The conundrum is that it is also extremely important.  There is a whole team, division, or organization working on a project.  That is a lot of inertia rolling in the “yes” direction.  Saying “no” is going to upset a lot of people.  Plus, if this were really a problem someone else would say something, right? Wrong.  You cannot wait for someone else to notice the problem you see.  Sometimes you have to stand up and say “Dammit, stop!” 

Mission Control learned this lesson the hard way when three astronauts lost their lives during a test.  While the stakes of our decisions may not be life and death, it is still imperative that we all speak up when we see a potential problem or, for that matter, a solution.  Never assume someone else will see what you see or realize what you realize.  Every one of us is responsible for voicing our own concerns or suffering the consequences.


Take Responsibility and Never Stop Learning

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills.
— Gene Kranz

Taken from a later part of the “Dammit, stop!” speech, the first part of this quote (“tough”) reiterates the responsibility we all have to make difficult and unpopular decisions when it is necessary.  “If you see something, say something.” is not just a cliché.  It is our responsibility in our everyday lives, in every situation, wherever we are.

Kranz goes on to describe competent as “never take anything for granted.”  In later years, he will summarize this as “never stop learning.” This is an indispensable lesson for all leaders.  What works today may not work tomorrow.  What we knew yesterday may be wrong today.  We should never assume and we should never stop questioning.  We must constantly strive for knowledge and yearn for discovery.  

We are not Flight Director for Apollo 13.  We are not carrying out the dream of an assassinated President.  Our successes and failures are not carried live on television around the world.  However, we are leaders.  While the physical safety of our team is usually not contingent on our decisions, the quality of their lives may well be.  Being a leader is our burden.  We take the responsibility for the outcomes of our decisions and those of our team.  It is our duty to do whatever it takes to make the best decisions we can. I believe that by studying the actions of those leaders who worked under pressures we could never imagine, we can learn important lessons about what really matters and what it really means to lead.

Best Regards,