Fifty years later, Apollo 13 shows how leaders can navigate crises like COVID-19
Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970, with the set mission to land on the moon, but an explosion on the spacecraft prompted NASA to abruptly cancel the lunar landing in favor of a far more critical objective: return three astronauts safely to Earth.
The 50th anniversary of this near-tragedy could not come at a more relevant time. Although saving three lives on an aborted space flight is not quite the same as saving millions of lives and the global economy, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a rapid response to a pressing new reality as humankind works toward doing so in the face of inadequate provisions and grim predictions.
Individuals at the helm of businesses, healthcare systems, and governments alike can learn a great deal from the ultimately triumphant Apollo 13 story. Swift, strategic, and decisive actions proved essential that day and are needed again as our global society seeks to overcome an exceedingly daunting public health and economic challenge.
The work begins with the leaders of individual institutions resisting every impulse to fixate on daily metrics like gains and losses. Instead, they must take a much broader perspective, focusing with laser precision on their distinct and most critical responsibilities–to both their people and organizations–and their unique ability to set a course that could save lives and livelihoods.
Here’s what they should do.
Leaders of all kinds should ruthlessly identify their most essential priorities and define their work to deliver on them down to the task level–an exercise that reveals what types of skills, knowledge, and attributes can best help get the job done quickly without sacrificing quality. Then they must down-ramp everything else even in the face of strong opposition and pressure.
To illustrate, consider that NASA completely abandoned the moon landing despite the vast resources dedicated to the mission, and focused all efforts on saving the astronauts’ lives.
Take stock of every available asset and capability, particularly of people. A rapid talent audit provides leaders the benefit of knowing who they have on board, where they report in the organization, and who they need to bring on immediately. This process reveals both strengths and gaps in the workforce relative to the organizations’ refocused priorities. It also reveals flawed thinking behind impulsive layoffs, which risk diminishing an organization’s chances of strategically augmenting workforces and redeploying talent.
A team of NASA engineers had the literal task of repurposing physical materials aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft. They famously created a means of filtering carbon dioxide with the use of such items as duct tape and socks.
Leaders must entrust teams with critical tasks in order to advance on parallel tracks simultaneously with maximum speed. This requires that they focus on communication and coordination with fierce rigor, letting their teams work their assigned problem(s) with independence while managing their interdependence. This restraint allows leaders to maintain a necessary high-level perspective and provides space for teams’ most creative, outside-the-box thinking, which leaders can all too easily obstruct.
The numerous obstacles faced by the Apollo 13 astronauts left Houston’s Mission Control Center no choice but to empower and delegate its people to tackle a host of complex problems, from plotting a return path to Earth to devising a procedure for powering up the Apollo 13 command module from a full shutdown.
Beyond the lessons of Apollo 13, leaders must carefully consider their organizational culture in the way work traditionally advances, as well as actions that yield praise versus rebuke. Now is not the time to spin up grandiose culture changes that leaders may or may not believe in. Rather it’s a moment that requires scrupulous honesty about how individual cultures actually work. This frankness is crucial as leaders reset expectations reflecting our new normal. For example, if they ask people to embrace countercultural behavior and processes, they will unintentionally create added fear, which is the biggest barrier to performance, especially in times of crisis when the window for precise decisions and actions is extremely narrow.
It’s also imperative that leaders keep in mind that even large organizations with talent experts and personnel trained in organizational development and change can benefit from the perspective of outside experts in the wake of a crisis. Such advisers can best facilitate top-level discussions that help organizations strategically narrow their focus, set a course, and follow it.
They also approach complex problems from an objective, dispassionate perspective, often finding simple but overlooked solutions. Outside help further ensures that in-house teams don’t resort to autopilot behaviors, a common response to stress, and allows beleaguered personnel to reflect and reset when they’ve been unable to function at their best.
We are living in times without precedent and the stakes for organizations are impossibly high. Like Apollo 13, leaders might have only one shot at getting their strategy and execution right, but with a ruthless focus on top priorities, strategic assessment and utilization of assets, and trust in teams, leaders have a chance of succeeding in their mission.