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Leadership in times of Crisis | Apollo 13

Before I get into the main part of this week’s tip let me just say that I hope you and those who are important to you are keeping well. I know a couple of people who have relatives who are not very well, so my thoughts are with you and them. Secondly, I’d just like to wish you a happy Easter. Yes, I am in the office writing this on Good Friday! But what, I hear you cry is this week’s tip all about? Well, tomorrow is April 11th. Now, two things of importance happened 50 years ago tomorrow. The first was that my beloved Leeds United played Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. It ended 2-2, although we were robbed, and we lost the replay!! The second event that happened all those years ago was that the Apollo 13 moonshot was launched. I’m guessing that you seen the film or at least know the story of how a disaster was averted in the sense that the three astronauts all made it home safely. As a matter of fact, my current wife and I have a mug that we bought at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida which have the immortal words “Failure is not an option” printed on them! So, this article explores leadership skills in times of crisis, the crisis management lessons we can learn from Apollo 13 when failure is not an option and how we adapt to adversity during the coronavirus lockdown.

Apollo 13 Crisis Management Lessons

Leadership In Times Of Crisis - Apollo 13

But, for those who have not seen the movie, or who don’t remember the real-life drama that inspired it, here’s a short synopsis.

On April 11th 1970, NASA launched the Apollo 13 mission, which was to take Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Sweigert of astronauts to the moon. Unfortunately as Sweigert stirred the liquid oxygen tanks, one of them exploded and the other one began leaking. As Commander Jim Lovell realised the extent of the problem, he uttered the immortal words “Houston, we have a problem”.

The guys in the spacecraft now had two major problems. Firstly, there wasn’t enough air, and, secondly, there was a feeling back in the mission control room that there wasn’t enough power to get the men home. Naturally the NASA people began to panic.

So, I was thinking about what lessons we can learn from the Apollo 13 story. Well, I believe the crisis offers us several key leadership and management lessons and as well as problem solving. Let’s start with the latter.

Problem solving in times of Crisis

Enter Gene Kranz, with his iconic vest. Kranz was the mission controller. Seeing all around him begin to panic and point fingers he took charge of the situation and offered us lesson number one by means of his famous “Work the problem people. Don’t make things worse” phrase.

Gene Kranz knew that every problem has a solution, or at least the damage could be managed. But he also knew that you have to be methodical and work through the issues in a controlled manner.

He also realised that he would have to organise the team of people to focus on the problem and make effective decisions. So he pulled one flight control team out of its normal role to work exclusively on finding solutions. He moved staff from team to team to bring in the specific knowledge, skills and experience that the situation needed.

Kranz also got these super scientists to be creative; to think outside of the box. In the film, you can hear him say, “I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do”. Kranz listened to people and encouraged different viewpoints. However, time was a scarce commodity. There was no time for analysis paralysis. Consequently, the teams broke down systems and used the parts to create new tools and systems that helped saved the astronauts’ lives.

Leadership in times of crisis

Let’s move on to the leadership lessons that the crisis holds for us about how to lead in a difficult situation; of which this was surely one.


“We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as (heck) not going to lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”


Using these words Kranz demonstrated tenacity and resilience. He believed it could get done, and he would do everything he could to make sure it would get done. To use his words, leaders do not treat failure as a viable option or outcome.

In this way Kranz also knew that he would have present a positive and optimistic exterior to the folks in the teams. So, as ground crew members were beginning to lose their belief that this was going to turn out well, Kranz quickly and firmly put an end to the pessimism.

At this point I offer you the thoughts of Doctor Martin Seligman. Seligman argues that optimists define bad things that happen to them in terms of causes which are temporary, specific, and changeable. Pessimists define the bad things that happen to them in terms of causes which are permanent, pervasive, and personal.

Finally, when Kranz overheard a senior NASA director saying that this could be the worst disaster in the history of NASA, Kranz cut him off. “With all due respect sir, I think this is going to be our finest hour.”

How we adapt to adversity for COVID-19

I believe this is an important leadership lesson. I have a friend who is a master mariner. Peter always says that you don’t become a master mariner when the seas are calm. As a leader, it’s not the good times that test you. A test of you as a leader is how you deal with adversity.

So, here we are in week whatever of the COVID-19 lockdown. Maybe Mr Kranz, who has long since retired, can offer an example of leadership in a crisis. Remember, no matter the problem you are facing, work the problem. Expect to succeed and use all options and resources you have available to you. Finally, know that people will be looking to you for leadership.

Wishing you a happy Easter and please stay safe.

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