What Apollo 13 Can Teach Us About Leadership

Like many, I love the movie Apollo 13. I’m still impressed that Ron Howard could create a movie that had us all on the edge of our seats even though we already knew the outcome.

The real Gene Kranz on the left.

The real Gene Kranz on the left.

That mission could launch a hundred blog posts, but I want to talk about two different scenes that the movie depicted, both centered around the legendary Flight Director Gene Kranz (my grandmother’s maiden name was Kranz, so I like to think that Gene and I might be distantly related, which would be great for me but upsetting for him).

Scene One: Engineers are struggling to concoct a solution for a revised power-up procedure. Here’s the exchange:

Gene Kranz: Come on, I want whatever you guys got on the power-up procedures. We’ve got to get something up to these guys.
Deke Slayton: Gene, they’re working on it.
Gene Kranz: I don’t want the whole damn bible, just give me a couple of chapters. We’ve got to give these guys something.
Deke Slayton: They’re working on it now.
NASA engineer: I’ll get over there and get an estimate.
Gene Kranz: Goddamnit! I don’t want another estimate! I want the procedure! Now!

Remember in the movie what Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) did when he yelled that last line?  He kicked something to drive his point home.

Call it what you will.  He was demanding.  He drew a line in the sand. He was hard.

Scene Two:  Commander James Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) gets frustrated on Day Six of their mission and tears off his bio-sensor, which inspires the other two crew members to do the same.  Here’s the exchange:

CAPCOM 2: 13, we just got another request from the Flight Surgeon for you to get some sleep. Don’t like these readings down here.
Jim Lovell: [Tearing off his biomeds] Let’s see how he likes this. I am sick and tired of the entire western world knowing how my kidneys are functioning!
Dr. Chuck: [after Lovell’s heartrate flatlines] Flight, we just lost Lovell!
CAPCOM 2: 13, Houston. Jim, we just had a bottoming out on your biomeds.
Jim Lovell: I’m not wearing my biomeds.
CAPCOM 2: [after Gene Kranz shrugs it off] Ok, Jim. Copy that.
[Jack and Fred now tear away their own biomeds]
Dr. Chuck: [after all three crew members flatline] Flight, now I lost all three of them!
Gene Kranz: It’s just a little medical mutiny, Doc. I’m sure the boys are still with us. Let’s cut them a little slack, ok?

Do you remember the gesture that a bemused Kranz makes as he delivers that last statement?  It was subtle, but powerful.  He makes a little gesture with his hand – kind of a wave – that says “let’s not worry about that now”.

That little hand wave has always struck me.  Like parenting, leadership can often be about choosing which battles to fight (and winning them) and which battles to avoid.  Parents who insist on battling all the time, and “winning” every time, are generally not very good parents.

Leaders who do the same are generally not very good leaders.

In these two scenes, Kranz shows that he is looking at the problem in front of him and deciding whether or not it was in the critical path of the mission’s success – that is to say, if winning that particular battle was central to the mission.  In the first scene, the answer was clearly “yes”, and in the second scene, despite the annoyance of the Flight Surgeon (Dr. Chuck, who hilariously shows throughout the movie how a 1960s flight surgeon could smoke a cigarette), the answer clearly was “no”.

For every leader, there are times when you have to allow someone to tear off their bio-sensor, and there are times when you have to demand excellence.

Gene Kranz provides a glimpse into how one man under enormous stress made the distinction.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.

  • Michael McBrien

    Great post Mike. It is always great to know which battles to fight, when you choose wisely, you can usually win the ones that are the most important to you. When you say “I want to win them all!”, you usually mis out on some you had wished you had won…

    I loved that movie as well! We had James Lovell speak at a large industry event after the movie came out. He started his speech in a very light hearted manner, he talked about meeting Tom Hanks and watching him sweat as he flew him home in his small plane. He wondered, how is this guy going to play an astronaut? Then he got into what had happened on the mission, you could have heard a pin drop in the room, riveting. It was a memorable presentation about an amazing point in time in our history. Great teaching moments about leadership!

    Thanks for another great post!

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