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17th April 1970: Houston, we no longer have a problem. Leadership and improvisation

A lot of leadership lessons have come out of NASA over the years.

Teamwork and innovation: Leadership and innovation consultants often remind their clients that NASA would get two teams to compete on coming up with an innovative solution to a problem and that the competitive element accelerated the innovation process, for example.

Connecting everybody’s job with the overall mission, vision and purpose: And then there’s the probably apocryphal story of JFK visiting NASA HQ at Houston and stopping to talk to a man with a mop in the corridor and asking “And what do you do at NASA?” to be answered by the janitor with “I’m helping put a man on the moon sir” – often used as an example of connecting people’s everyday jobs with the overall purpose of the organization and how critical it is for leaders to do that.

Set the vision even if you don’t have all the answers already: And, of course, there’s the famous promise by President Kennedy to ‘put a man on the moon before the end of the decade’ when the technology didn’t exist to do that.

I heard once from Mike Harris, who was founding CEO of the UK bank First Direct, and who was originally a scientist specialising in boron chemistry (and who is a brilliant organizational leader in the mould of Jim Collins’ Level 5 leadership) that Kennedy’s scientists said, among other things “But, we don’t even have a fuel that can take us to the moon and back!” And the answer was “Go and invent one, then”, which led to the creation of a whole new field of chemistry – boron chemistry – which led to the creation of the right fuel. Now, I’m not a scientist so I hope I’ve remembered that right and not garbled the science.

But, we also learnt from NASA about crisis leadership: If you’ve seen the film/movie Apollo 13, you know what I mean. If we leave aside for the moment the tragic subsequent deaths in the space shuttle years later, the way that the NASA team at Houston was led to save the lives of the astronauts in Apollo 13 after an explosion in the oxygen tank – using duct tape, plastic hose and cardboard to rig up a contraption to increase the oxygen (or decrease the carbon dioxide – can’t remember) in the Lunar module so they didn’t run out before landing – was inspiring crisis leadership at its best – with everyone in the project team taking the lead at different times under the guidance of the overall team leaders to do what seemed impossible.

It was April 17th 1970 – 38 years ago today – that the Apollo 13 lunar module splashed down safely.

Great reminder of the dramatic story in Wired here (including the fact that no-one said “Houston, we have a problem.” That was the movie version.)

We spend so much time planning, writing procedures, training people in competencies and so on for leadership. We forget how leadership in the field, in real life, often comes down to improvising with the resources you have available. And we forget just how powerful the ability to improvise can be in leaders at all levels during a crisis.

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