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Leadership Lessons From Apollo 13


A number of years ago a trusted friend told me of the leadership lessons that are imbedded in the movie, “Apollo 13”. I made sure to watch it the next time it was scheduled for television (this was pre-streaming). I was hooked. Now, “Apollo 13” is one of the movies I will watch to conclusion if I cross it while channel surfing. It is chocked full of lessons on leadership, planning, and life.

To recap for those who may not know the story, the Apollo 13 Mission launched on April 11, 1970. It was to land on the moon and then return safely to Earth. Unfortunately, disaster struck a few days into the mission when there was an explosion in an air tank that severely damaged the service module, the mother ship of the mission. The focus of the operation transformed from landing on the moon and returning to Earth to saving the three crew members and getting them back home, which they did on April 17th. The mission is called a “successful failure”.

Following are five lessons that resonated with me.

1. Successful Planning Creates Organizational Focus 

People often miss the true purpose of the Apollo 13 mission. While the headlines centered on the moon landing and its exploration, the strategic outcome of the mission was for the crew to return safely to Earth.

Months of preparation and execution of the strategic vision created a uniformed awareness of this priority at NASA – get the astronauts home. Thus, the explosion did not change the strategic plan. This focus was enhanced by clear communications from the flight director and the urgency of the situation, given the threatening circumstances. It was clear, after the explosion, all energy, efforts, and purpose would be centered on bringing the crew home. The power of this commitment established a determination that the rescue mission could and would get done.

Does your entire organization know and understand the strategic vision? Do they know how their responsibilities contribute to the successes of their credit union? Are mission objectives reinforced by clear and consistent communications? Is there a global determination to achieving the vision? Is your why understood by all?

2. Tactical Plans Must Be Flexible 

Tactical plans are created to achieve the overall mission. Credit unions often label these as annual, operation or business plans. The Apollo 13 mission was not an exception to this. There were thousands (if not millions) of smaller, tactical plans created to execute the moon launch, orbit, landing and return. The accident did not alter the strategic plan, but it greatly modified the action plans. Changing circumstances created the necessity to abort the moon landing and made other significant alterations to the original plans to achieve the mission vision – get the team home.

Everyone has experienced considerable, and unforeseen, circumstances this year. While the pandemic has certainly impacted your credit union’s business plan(s), they should not have altered your overall vision. The changes, aka pivots, dictated by mandates and heightened safety precautions have highlighted the differences between a strategic and business plan.

What changes are needed to continue to progress towards your strategic vision? Better yet, does your credit union have a truly strategic plan that is supported by the annual/business plan?

3. Delegate 

Success for Apollo 13 was built upon the many tactical and sub-tactical plans needed to support such a large undertaking. These action plans required tremendous expertise and capacity. Mission success was depended upon having people with the needed proficiencies on board and providing them with the trust and freedom to develop their “business” plans in support of overall vision. In addition, the creation and execution of a revised rescue plan in a compressed time frame could only be achieved by having each department/section maximize their knowledge and experience to develop workable solutions to achieve the mission.

While the determination of the strategic vision rests with leadership, it is created from input and ideas from stakeholders – internal members, external members, community. Is your team polled, formally or informally, before planning sessions? Do your team members develop the components of the business plan within their areas of responsibility? Are there inter- and intra- team reviews of proposed plans to enhance awareness and identify areas of concern?

4. Work The Problem/Assess and Manage Risk 

“Work the problem” was a line in the movie said by the flight director, Gene Kranz. His point was there would be time to determine what went wrong, but that was beyond their control at this time. Another example of this took place while the crew was in the lunar module (think of three men in a Volkswagen Bug), also searching for solutions. When two of the crew started to point fingers. Jim Lovell, the Commander played by Tom Hanks, said “we are not going to go bouncing off the walls for 10 minutes and end up right back here with the same problem, trying to figure out how to stay alive”. Energies and efforts had to be concentrated on what could be managed to save the team.

When possible, the impact of identified solutions could be quantified, and informed decisions could be made. However, the space craft was returning to Earth on the wrong flight trajectory, and if not corrected, re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere was not possible. The concerns on power consumption required a correction to be made without flight instruments. They had to fly by the seat of their pants for 4 minutes, 23 seconds (the movie’s version was much shorter). This was a decision that could not be supported by data.

Credit unions are in the risk management business. Everything they do has an associated risk. Eliminating risk will eliminate business. Risks and mitigation efforts must be identified and evaluated. However, there will be times when the right answer is to proceed without knowing the risks, because failing to act is a greater risk.

It is important, when facing a crisis, to ensure that further threats have been prevented. Then it is necessary to determine solutions to the current situation. Finally, once the recovery has been completed, a “hot wash” can be performed to identify factors that contributed to the problem(s), and how they can be better managed in the future.

5. Maximize Your Capacities 

The crew of Apollo 13 had to face this crisis with limited resources on hand to solve a myriad of technical issues. For example, a square filter had to be adapted to fit in a round hole. The components of the space craft were designed for specific purposes. But to adjust to the changing circumstances, the equipment had to be used differently than its intended purpose.

Likewise, credit unions have capacity limitations, whether they be human, financial, locations, expertise, etc. In times of need, these capacities must be maximized, magnified even, by deploying advanced solutions.

Most, if not all, credit unions successfully demonstrated this during the spring of 2020 by shifting to a remote work force and service delivery operation, almost overnight. Lessons learned from that transformation will assist in the future. But, as stated before, everything a credit union does has a risk factor. How is your credit union mitigating the risk to confidential information and technology created by telecommuting? How can the team culture be enhanced for remote team members? How will your credit union foster and develop relationships with your external members in the age of social distancing?

So, here we are 50 years after Apollo 13 living through our own “successful failure”. The leadership skills demonstrated by NASA in 1970 can help us today. If we focus on our vision, be agile, work the problem, help, and take care of each other, and maximize our capabilities, we will get home.