Four leadership lessons from Apollo 13

I have a personality trait that leaves my wife and colleagues shaking their heads. I speak faster than I think. Sometimes, I can’t recall what I just said.

It happened recently. When it did, Mandy looked at me and asked, “Where did you hear that phrase? You say it a lot.”

Of course, I had no idea what I just said.

“You said . . . let’s work the problem, Mandy.” 

While I didn’t recall saying it, I believed my wife. Because I love that phrase. When problems come up in a group setting, I tend to say it.

And like most other men that I know, I’m quoting a movie – Apollo 13In fact, I love four quotes in that movie, spoken by Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director who served during the Apollo 13 crisis. (As you might imagine, he may not have said each of these quotes exactly. But from what I read about Mr. Kranz, the quotes do embody his character and leadership.)

For those not familiar with the movie, or the real-life drama that inspired it, here’s a short synopsis.

In 1970, NASA launched the Apollo 13 mission, which was to take a crew of astronauts to the moon. On the way to the moon, one of the liquid oxygen tanks exploded, and the other one began leaking.  The space craft had two major problems – there wasn’t enough air, and there wasn’t enough electricity to get the men home.

As you can imagine, NASA’s mission control was up in arms. What happened? Who screwed up?

Enter Gene Kranz, with his iconic vest.

He took charge, and over the course of the crisis, he uttered four phrases that have stayed with me ever since I saw the movie.

  1. Work the problem, people. Kranz knew that every problem has a solution, or at least the damage could be managed. But you have to be methodical and work through the issues. Stop worrying, and start working. Once you understand the problem, you have to answer these questions: What can you do? What is beyond your control? Where can you get help?
  2. 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. Tenacity and resilience. It could get done, and it would get done. Do not treat failure as a viable option or outcome.
  3. I don’t care what anything was DESIGNED to do. I care about what it CAN do. As NASA’s scientists worked the problem, Kranz made them think outside the box. They broke down systems and used the parts to create new tools and systems that helped saved lives.  How many solutions or skill sets are there for the taking in what you already have?
  4. When the NASA director said 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.”  Perhaps that’s the gem.  As a leader, you aren’t paid to coast on the good times. I really think you earn your pay when you face a problem.  Overcoming a problem is a true victory.  Sure, hitting home runs is nice.  But I love the relay throw from the fence that cuts a run off at home. How you deal with adversity will greatly impact how you do on this wonderful planet. Because adversity seems to find you no matter where you go.

The past few weeks have certainly thrown us some curveballs. Think of Mr. Kranz.  Work the problem.  Expect to succeed. Use all options. And know that by facing and overcoming adversity, you will experience some of the best stuff life has to offer.

Hang in there. We’ll get through this together.

Anthony Demangone

Anthony Demangone

Anthony Demangone is executive vice president and chief operating officer at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU). Demangone oversees day-to-day operations and manages the association’s education, membership, ... Web: Details