Leadership Lessons from Apollo 13

What happened on Apollo 13 wasn’t supposed to happen.

apollo spacecraft rocketLaunched from the Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 and her three astronauts’ mission was to be the United States’ third lunar landing.

Three days into their journey to the moon, an explosion on board the spacecraft drastically cut their oxygen supply and electrical power.

Immediately after seeing that the original mission was impossible, Flight Director Gene Kranz changed the mission from lunar landing to the safe return of Apollo 13’s three astronauts.

As carbon dioxide reached dangerous level, ground control had to quickly invent a new way to make the command module’s square filters work in the lunar module’s round receptacles.

They had to figure out how to fit a square peg into a round hole.

If you’ve had a chance to see Ron Howard’s film about this riveting, real life drama, this is the scene where a lead engineer brings his team together and dumps onto the table in front of them a box full of the tools and resources aboard the spacecraft.

He tells them, in essence, ‘Gentlemen, this is what they have up there. This is the result they need. Make it happen.’

The Apollo 13 mission came to mind recently when I consulted with a director at a top healthcare company.

Michelle shared with me that her company had recently opened a new office in another state. Based on that they were told membership would be in this area, they filled over 70 positions to serve members through this new office.

Over 70 people had been hired or relocated. Families had been moved, people had signed leases or bought houses.

And then, the membership numbers didn’t turn out as expected. The numbers didn’t support the office being open.

Now what?


If you’d like some solutions on how to manage unexpected challenges, call Crystal at 719.291.0366 or email Crystal@CrystalJonas.com to schedule a free 30-minute consultation.

Whether your company is facing a major disappointment such as this one with far-reaching implications, or one not quite so complex, but challenging nonetheless, consider these lessons learned from the failed lunar mission of Apollo 13:

  1. What part of this mission can be saved? In what ways can we make unexpected changes and still keep our original intention?
  2. Tell people impacted by the change as soon as you’re able that the situation has been changed. When I was an executive office in an F-16 squadron, we called this kind of project “OBE,” which stands for “Overcome By Events.” Being open and transparent maintains people’s trust in you during uncertain and stressful times.
  3. As soon as you’re able, let everyone impacted by the circumstances know what the situation means to them personally.
  4. Use the talents of every team member possible to come up with solutions. Just as the engineers on the Apollo 13 took literal stock of all resources available to the spacecraft, and all the brainpower they could in mission control, use the resources available to you.
  5. Expect that there’s a solution, and frame it that way to your people helping you arrive at the solution. Rather than say “Can this work?” Try, “How can we make this work? Or how can we make parts of this work?” “How can we use our talents and resources to give a favorable conclusion?”
  6. Update often. Keep communicating, even when you don’t know anything new. Let your people know as much as you can.
  7. When the storm has passed and you’re on safe ground again, squeeze every lesson possible about what was a complex, challenging circumstance.

On April 17, 1970, thanks to the skill, dedication, and combined efforts of the astronauts and hundreds of talented professionals at NASA, Apollo 13’s three astronauts safely landed, and were recovered in the Pacific Ocean.

Their mission lasted 5 days, 22 hours, and 54 minutes.

Crystal Jonas is the “Employee Performance Optimizer.” She helps leaders leverage their employees’ time, talent and energy so they can be more productive in a drama-free workplace.

If you’d like some solutions on how to manage unexpected challenges, call Crystal at 719.291.0366 or email Crystal@CrystalJonas.com to schedule a free 30-minute consultation.

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