In April 1970, Apollo 13 was on its second journey to the moon. This was nothing more than a routine repeat voyage until the words “Houston, we have a problem” all but screamed at us over the airwaves, shocking an audience that was taking safety in space travel for granted. The entire world tuned into the drama of three astronauts – three heroes – desperately trying to return home safely to their families.
Jim Lovell was the astronaut who uttered those unexpected words. We know the story has a happy ending, but there was a period of time when no one knew for sure. So the question for us is, “What can we learn from Lovell and his crew that we can apply to our world of work today?”
While creating a video for Ford Motor Company’s customer relations department, I was lucky enough to interview Jim Lovell. The video was titled, “Houston, we have a problem— or how to avoid surprise, panic and blame.”
Hopefully, you will never have to make life-and-death decisions like those in charge of Apollo 13, but stop for a second and reflect on your own life and leadership style. How do you react under the pressure of an unexpected problem that needs a successful ending? When such a problem hits your desk, do you never, sometimes, or often respond by being surprised, panicking and immediately looking for someone to blame? Or do you calmly choose a wiser course of action?
Let’s look at another well-known example – Hurricane Katrina. Lots of leaders were involved in trying to handle that tragic event. Many, if not most, responded first by using this habitual “surprise, panic and blame” pattern.
I think we would all agree that the victims and the country paid a high price for this less-than-optimal leadership response. But before we start playing the blame game ourselves, remember: it’s only those among us who have never blamed first and thought later that have a legitimate right to criticize others for doing so. And that doesn’t leave many of us to do the criticizing, does it?
So let’s go back to 1970 and learn how Jim Lovell and his team chose to respond to a seemingly impossible life-and-death scenario.
Here’s the question I asked Jim in that interview: “Jim, I read all about it, but I want to hear it directly from you. What happened?” Lovell replied, “We practiced every single thing we could think of, but the thing that happened! Well, nobody thought of that! But we had anticipated that things would be different than we had planned, so we practiced for that— for the unexpected. That was the practice that saved our lives.”
If you ask me, what Jim Lovell said in that interview is solid gold for every leader. But only if the leader is open enough to hear it and then disciplined enough to practice it. It’s not enough to expect the unexpected; you have to prepare for the unexpected and then practice your response.
Leadership under fire is usually defined by the old cliche, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But within this particular piece of gold, we’re talking mental toughness, not physical toughness. However, there are similarities. The way to get physically tough is to “work out.” and the way to get mentally tough is to mentally “work out.” Mental toughness means doing the mental rehearsal that prepares you for the unexpected.
Leaders are paid to solve problems so when that unexpected problem comes, think about Jim Lovell. Instead of being surprised, anticipate the unexpected. Instead of panicking, quickly look for solutions to solve the problem. Instead of blaming, learn from what happened so everyone can be better prepared next time.
Anticipate. Problem-solve. Learn.
Think of how different things could be if all leaders adhered to the Jim Lovell school of “Houston, we have a problem.”