By Thomas S. Bateman3 minute Read
Gene Kranz, the steel-nerved flight director of the troubled Apollo 13 mission, is widely associated with the gritty epigram, “failure is not an option.” In fact, Kranz–a breathtakingly effective leader who served as flight director for both the Gemini and Apollo programs during his 34-year tenure at NASA–is the source of a number of highly quotable reflections on leadership. Our current favorite? “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
Kranz’s words are the stuff of great leadership, and they point directly to a crucial element that is largely absent from today’s discussion of the subject: good old-fashioned, hard-earned, rock-solid competence.
As much as we like to ponder the importance of character, the mystery of charisma, and the utility of relationships, the inescapable fact is that truly great leadership requires solving the biggest problems.
Work the problem
When it comes to solving important problems, too often we go with our intuition, and as Kranz admonished, that only makes things worse. Real competence involves doing things thoughtfully and mindfully, rather than by hope, intuition, or guesswork.
In his remarkable “tough and competent” speech (also known as the “Kranz Dictum”) following the deadly 1967 fire on the launch pad of the Apollo I, Kranz put it this way: “We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle.”
A genius of operational procedure–his “go/no go” launch status check system remains in use–Kranz did what the best leaders do: he successfully overcame challenges via mindful, deliberative information processing and effective problem-solving processes.
Leaders must “work the problem” through proper and thorough procedures. Specifically, they should:
- Define the problem
- Determine goals/objectives
- Generate an array of alternative solutions
- Evaluate the possible consequences of each solution
- Use this analysis to choose one or more courses of action
- Plan the implementation
- Implement with full commitment
- Adapt as needed based on incoming data
Sound too much like a Management 101 textbook? Or too time-consuming? Here’s what Apollo Flight Controller Jerry Bostick had to say about how the mission control team coped with the cascade of unexpected challenges–the literal putting out of fires–that arose during the Apollo 13 mission:
“When bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”
Form Your A-Team
Bostick’s use of “we” brings us to another crucial element of leadership and problem solving: the inclusion of relevant, committed, and highly energized team members.
Of course, time constraints mean that not all problems can or should be tackled with all hands on deck. But when it comes to the important problems, the best leaders involve other people who possess useful and complementary skills, expertise, and information, as well as a darn good reason to care and an unwavering commitment to seeing things through to success.
Outstanding teammates don’t just add worthwhile opinions and insights; their involvement in rational solution-seeking procedures helps eliminate some of the bugaboos most commonly responsible for hampering wise decision-making.
Working well with others can help keep egos in check, expose cognitive biases, ensure that all relevant stakeholders are taken into account, and anticipate short- and long-term consequences of actions.
Communication is key
But how do you get your team–and your organization–jazzed about practicing such extreme competence? The classic approach–to communicate and try to persuade–is tempting but insufficient.
The key is what you communicate about. Great leaders talk to their teams, a lot, about the problems they consider most important, the necessity of strong process in tackling those problems, and how to persist and adapt as needed to the point of real results.
Finally, the best leaders spread the competence not only through ongoing dialogue about important issues, but also by demonstrating effective problem-solving processes. Showing the way can be augmented with training and development activities that can help turn good problem-solving process into a vital, sustainable, and powerful cultural asset for your team or firm. Because if it’s long-term success you’re after, sheer competence is the name of the game. Charisma may take you far, but it’ll hardly get you to the moon and back.
—Thomas S. Bateman is a chaired professor and director of a multidisciplinary leadership minor at the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.
—Mary Summers Whittle is a business writer and staff at the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia.
The film Apollo 13 represents a true story of great leaders being able to beat incredible odds. The failed mission put both the ground and flight crew in a terrible situation that could have easily broken any leader; however, the leaders refuse to be broken and successfully lead the astronauts back to safety. In the movie, there are great examples of leadership from Flight Commander Jim Lovell and Flight Director Gene Kranz as they navigate this intense mission.
Flight Commander Jim Lovell is a great leader because of how capable he is of creating a vision. Before it was announced that he would command Apollo 13, he clearly is passionate about being one of the first men on the moon. He sets his vision the night he watched Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon by shutting one eye and holding his thumb aimed at the moon. His strong vision allows him to maintain high morale in his team throughout the initial stages of the flight when there were a few minor issues. However, when necessary for his crew’s survival, he switches his vision to getting home safely. Although, he is fervent about visiting the moon, he is the first of the crew as they sadly pivoted around the moon to lead the change in vision, again, putting his thumb over the earth.
Flight Director Gene Kranz demonstrates the difference between being a leader and a manager. To fulfill his role, he has to appropriately manage all of the scientists and crew on the ground while simultaneously leading the mission. Kranz does not accept the status quo, by refusing to believe the astronauts would not make it back when the odds of the crew’s survival are incredibly low. When President Nixon sends a man asking for the odds of survival, Kranz in front of the team loudly declares, “We will get them all back.” This ultimately allows him to effectively lead the team. In order to accomplish this goal, he did not rely heavily on existing systems or structures but rather he trusted those around him by giving them an ambitious goal and motivating them to achieve it.
Both Flight Commander Jim Lovell’s vision and Flight Director Gene Kranz’s ability to lead rather than manage flows directly into the idea of getting people on their side. Although these characters are completely different, they both are able to have their crews completely on their side. At no point did either of these leaders have their teams lose trust in them. If both teams were not fully on board, the incredibly low odds of the team’s survival would have been even lower. These two leaders truly understand this; even though they apply a lot of pressure to their teams, it was never too much that their teams faltered. The leaders in Apollo 13 set a vision, lead instead of managed, and keep everyone on their side which ultimately allows them to safely beat incredible odds and get the crew home safely.