This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13, the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program. No one has forgotten that part of history, but we would do well to revisit the lessons we learned 50 years ago during this time of uncertainty. Linda Henman discusses the mentality a leader needs to lead his or her team through unexpected change.
James Lovell commanded the third Apollo mission that was intended to land on the moon. Jack Swigert served as Command Module pilot, Fred Haise as Lunar Module pilot and Gene Kranz as Flight Director at NASA. Ken Mattingly had originally been scheduled to make the flight, but because he had been exposed to German measles, Swigert took his place. Mattingly did not ultimately develop measles, but he did help with the rescue.
Apollo 13 launched successfully, but the crew had to abort the moon landing after an oxygen tank ruptured, severely damaging the spacecraft’s electrical system. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of water, illness and the critical need to re-engineer the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17. Even though the crew did not accomplish its mission of landing on the moon, the operation was termed a “successful failure” because the astronauts returned safely.
In the 1995 movie by the same name, Tom Hanks made famous the line: “Houston, we have a problem.” Actually, Tom Hanks’ character, Jim Lovell, did not say the line initially. Jack Swigert did, and he said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Ground Control responded, “Say again, please.” Lovell then repeated, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Filmmakers intentionally changed the line because the original quote made it seem as though the problem had already passed.
For the purpose of this discussion, however, the original and accurate line gives us more of an understanding about why we should count Lovell among those who have led a team of virtuosos. Even though he found himself in the throes of the consequences of the problem, he realized the problem existed in the past. The solution to the problem needed to occur in the present and future.
Subtle difference? No, huge difference.
Strong leaders shift from grieving the loss of what was to formulating solutions for what is in the blink of an eye. And they encourage their team to do the same. Lovell’s comment immediately focused those in space and those on the ground on the need to creatively discover a way to save them. No time for gnashing of teeth or wringing of hands.
The Apollo 13 team worked around the clock to bring the crippled spacecraft to safety, despite the unprecedented and overwhelming odds against their success. The same team had launched the spacecraft, but their finest hour came when they faced the life-or-death situation. Here’s what Jim Lovell teaches us about leading a team during a time of unexpected and unwelcome changes:
- Although face-to-face dialogue represents the ideal for team communication, it isn’t critical. Lovell had team members with him in space and others on the ground. Exceptional individuals can work together to overcome adversity, regardless of whether they operate in the same time zone – or even on the same planet.
- Lovell supported his team. Swigert originally told Houston that they had had a problem. Lovell echoed the response and used the same verb tense to describe the situation.
- Although others had gone to the moon, the Apollo 13 crew went where no man had gone before in terms of solving problems that hadn’t existed before. They created solutions for unique problems that saved their lives in the short run but that made space travel safer for those who would follow.
Jim Lovell lives in the annals of space history as a hero who literally brought his team back from the jaws of death. Fifty years from now, there will be others who live in organizational histories for the marks they made this week in April. They will be the ones who say a year from now, “We had a problem.” For them, this will be their finest hour.