Apollo 13 – Lessons in Crisis Leadership from Failure (part 1)


A crisis that snuck up on us. A situation the public is ignoring until disaster strikes. People isolated away from others, at risk of their lives. It sounds like a story from today’s pandemic headlines but I’m referring to something that happened from 50 years ago this month.

Apollo 13 was intended to be the third landing on the moon in less than a year. Interest was waning. The ‘space race’ was over, the US had won, and the USSR denied there ever was a race. The astronauts’ news conferences weren’t even carried live on network television anymore. Just a routine mission. But an accident happened on the way to the moon that creates a set of powerful lessons in leadership that resonate today.

I often tell people that the fastest course that you can get in leadership in a time of crisis is to watch the movie made from this true story. Ron Howard directed Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell – the spacecraft commander – and Ed Harris as Lead Flight Director Gene Kranz. Both in real-life and the characters as portrayed, they demonstrate the creativity, compassion, and determination that brings the best from their team and their situation.

For a quick recap of the challenge that they faced: Mid-way to the moon, while executing a routine maintenance operation, a wiring flaw causes the oxygen tanks in the Command Service Module (CSM) to explode, crippling the Odyssey. The oxygen tanks are needed for the fuel cells as well as breathing. Power levels are falling to nothing. Lovell reports to Mission Control the second-most famous line uttered from space “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”* In the moment it’s unclear exactly what has happened – in all their careful planning and redundancies, NASA had never envisioned a failure like this. But it is quickly obvious that the Odyssey is failing.

In that instant, the mission changes. With no chance to land on the moon, the three astronauts must turn the Lunar Module – Aquarius – into a lifeboat. They need Aquarius to live in, and to execute the course corrections needed to get back to Earth. The astronauts return to the CSM Odyssey only for final re-entry and landing back on Earth. From the moment of the explosion, every obstacle experienced and every plan needed was created just-in-time by the people on the ground, or by the three astronauts. Rather than being ignored, the entire world is gripped in watching the real-life drama unfold.

Apollo13 (4)Just what are the lessons? As I go through them I will refer to scenes in the movie, which is a fairly accurate condensation of the mission. But it is important to remember, this all really happened. I will share some additional lessons from this moment in history that didn’t make the film. And below I will provide some insight where you can find more detail.

The lessons start even before the crisis hits.

Own the situation. Days before the flight is due to launch, NASA flight surgeons discover that the command module pilot (Ken Mattingly – played by Gary Sinise) has been exposed to the measles. They decide he must be replaced with the backup pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). Jim Lovell fights for his original team, but eventually he realizes he can’t win. Once that happens, Lovell not only tells Mattingly himself, he takes the blame. “This was my decision.” The lesson: Own the situation. There are no excuses. Then with his new pilot he spends as much time training together in the limited window before launch as possible.

Get the data and make informed decisions. When the accident first occurs, Mission Control can’t believe their instruments. It must be an instrument failure. People are recommending different courses of action based on incomplete information. From the Odyssey, Lovell reports seeing a gas venting in addition to the same data on power loss they are seeing on the ground. Only taking all the information together is there a credible theory: The spacecraft is seriously damaged.

Give your team hope. Napoleon said “The role of a leader is to define reality and offer hope.” Flight Director Gene Kranz – basically the person in charge of the mission on the ground during one of three shifts – continually inspires his team. When told that this is NASA biggest failure he replies “I believe that this will be our finest moment.” Echoing Churchill’s similar comment during the Battle of Britain.

Work the problem(s) There is a tendency in crisis for everyone to pile onto the biggest issue. With the Odyssey crippled they have many problems. Do they turn around mid-way, or do they continue around the moon and return. How will they navigate? How will they stretch the LM Aquarius oxygen and batteries from two days for two people to four days for three people? How will they restart the Odyssey? Kranz assigns teams to various challenges and focuses on the most immediate, the most critical. Shut the command module down. Don’t turn the ship around immediately, continue around the moon as the least risky. On the spacecraft Lovell, Swigert and Fred Haise (played by Bill Paxton) operate the same way. Before they are told to power up the LM, they’ve already started turning on the Aquarius.

Know your limits. This isn’t shown in the movie but one of the smartest things Kranz does is turn over responsibility to Glynn Lunney at the end of his shift.** He knows that fresh eyes and fresh minds will better deal with the next set of problems. For the rest of the flight the three Flight Directors on the ground share responsibility round the clock. But Kranz signals his commitment to success in a different way. For each mission, his wife has provided him a new vest to wear with the mission patch. Kranz commits that he will wear the vest continuously until the three astronauts are safely returned. Many of the ground crew sleep at Mission Control throughout the rest of the flight so that they are available if needed.

Stay calm and project confidence. It’s okay to show your emotions – in a crisis it’s almost impossible not to – but wherever possible stay calm and focused on what most needs to be managed. There is a great scene in the movie – which the real Lovell says is fiction – where the three astronauts are arguing with voices raised – Did Swigert make a mistake that caused the accident? Lovell (Tom Hanks) raises his voice to get the other two to calm down. It’s pointless to argue, because it won’t change where they are or what they need to do next. Then Mission Control calls on the radio. With voice still raised Lovell asks “Are we on Vox” (ie, on an open mike). When he realizes they haven’t heard the argument he responds in perfect ‘pilot announcing something to passengers’ voice: “Houston say again that last transmission”. When you project that sense of calm authority, you help your team believe that they can achieve the task.

On the ground this same confidence is beautifully shown by Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan). After the accident, reporters start gathering in front of her home so that they can track the family’s every move. She tells the NASA press agent to have them to stay off her property. In both the spirit of the time and in her commitment to success she tells them that if they are unhappy, they can take it up with her husband. “He’ll be home on Friday.” She says.

Assign people to the problem they are best able to fix. Ken Mattingly, the command module pilot who got bumped from the flight last-minute, is pulled in to figure out how to restart the command module in order to get it ready for reentry. Mattingly knows the spacecraft and the crew better than anyone. No one has ever cold-started an Apollo capsule in space before. And they have limited batteries and time to get the system restarted. He works in a simulator with other ground crew through various sequences to come up with a way to coax the systems online without using all the remaining power.

In part 2 I will continue the lessons that you can learn from this crisis, and I will explain how the mission of Apollo 13 completes.


*Often misquoted as “Houston we have a problem”. Swigert says “Hey we’ve got a problem here.” Lovell says “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” The exact wording of the most famous line said in space is also controversial. On first stepping on the moon, Neil Armstrong claims that he said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the audio recording you do not hear the word ‘a’. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Neil_Armstrong

**In the movie, they generally show the same team in Mission Control under Gene Kranz in all Earth-bound scenes. Kranz was the lead Flight director and responsible for the White team. But Kranz, Lunney (Black team) and Milt Windler (Maroon team) split responsibility and with their respective teams handed off to each other at the end of each shift. That way they were able to work the problems continuously and collaboratively.

Learn More / References used:

At the time of writing, the movie Apollo 13 is available on Amazon Prime. Here’s the link to the IMDB page for the movie: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112384/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1





(Image credit Eric Dymond)

Published by

Mark Dymond, P.Eng

With over 20 years of consulting experience I've worked with clients in the banking, retail, travel and government sectors. Based in Toronto, Canada, currently I lead the Cloud consulting team for IBM Canada. I've led successful project and program teams in Canada, the US, and Europe of more than 200 people. Thoughts, comments and mistakes are most definitely my own!

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