by Dr. David Robinson
The 1970 NASA Mission, known as Apollo 13, never landed on the moon as planned. The ill-fated space capsule was piloted by Captain James Lovell, Jr. who was the leader of what became known as the “successful failure.”
With the benefit of Captain Lovell’s leadership and the dedicated teamwork of his team that included John Swingert, Jr., and Fred Haise, Jr., when two-hundred thousand miles from Earth, they turned a disaster into a great victory.
On the third day of their mission as they were approaching the moon, an oxygen tank exploded, doing extensive damage to the ship’s fuel cells that provided electricity and supported the propulsion system. Oxygen started leaking from the command module. With just 15 minutes of power left for their life-support, the men, forced to abandon the command module for the tiny lunar module, began the intense four-day struggle in figuring a way back home.
Captain Lovell credited the seamless teamwork between Mission Control’s planning by brilliant scientists, engineers, and his well-trained team of astronauts, who made their plan for the unanticipated crisis work. Lovell said, “In Apollo 13, there was no panic, no one swore, we all just went to work on what went wrong and how to get home.”
As with all great leaders, James Lovell provided the inspirational leadership, fundamental to any successful challenge, but absolutely vital in times of crisis. Average and good leaders can lead under ideal conditions, but the great ones surface when it looks like all hope is gone.
Great leadership is about anticipating and eliminating all possible failures before they arrive. If something unanticipated happens, great leaders become “hope dealers” for a favorable solution. They create a “spirit of hope” for the team and keep working until they find a solution.
The greatest leadership always shines when the clouds are darkest. In the direst circumstances, great leaders keep their team together, first emotionally, then practically. If you reverse the order allowing fears and doubt turn to anger and bitterness, your chances of surviving the storm drop drastically. If you have prepared your team to be emotionally mature, technically sound, and equipped them well in the fundamentals, they will perform well when the unexpected comes.
Though the Apollo 13 was unsuccessful in their planned mission, they were extremely successful in their unplanned mission. Every NASA mission following Apollo 13 was better prepared because of their “successful failure.”
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