There are lots of leadership positions; CEO, CFO, and COO to name a few. And, there are lots of industries in which to lead, but I want to suggest one that might be close to the pinnacle, Flight Director at NASA. Talk about tough! You’re corralling, pilots, engineers, doctors, researchers, countless technicians, and an ocean of support staff, all around the completion of a mission taking place in the harshest conditions known to man. Add to that that there are lives in the balance, and you have one of the most stressful leadership environments on the planet. Their success is based on their ability to work the problems they face as they arise.
Steely-Eyed Missile Man
Perhaps the most famous of these stellar leaders was Gene Kranz. They said he defined the tough and competent model that created the highest compliment given to mission folks and he was a steely-eyed missile man!
Kranz was the flight director on Gemini missions and then, as the space program transitioned, he moved to the fabled Apollo program. He directed Apollo 11’s mission to the moon as well as Apollo 17, our last manned exploration of our moon. He also guided STS-51-L, the shuttle mission that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope giving us a peek into creation.
Kranz was perhaps most famous for leading the teams that brought safely home the astronauts of the trouble-plagued Apollo 13 mission.
Apollo 13 experienced what seemed to be an insurmountable series of problems. One disaster after another piled up, each with numerous problems to be solved. As the lives of the three astronauts were clinging to a seemingly unsolvable situation, Kranz directed his team through setback after setback. Each trouble represented a new challenge. He did this by utilizing a leader’s most critical skill set – FOCUS. He chanted WORK THE PROBLEM after each obstacle. WORK THE PROBLEM. He warned; “don’t make it worse by guessing.” Let’s make sure we have a firm understanding of what’s going on and when we have that in hand; WORK THE PROBLEM. Many of the problems he faced were cursed with complex puzzles, but Kranz knew he could only get through them one piece at a time.
The Benefits of Experience
Kranz knew what he was doing. He had been there at the Apollo 1 disaster when three astronauts lost their lives in an explosive fire during ground testing of the capsule. “We didn’t do our job. We rolled the dice and hoped things would come together by launch day. In our hearts, we were just hoping for a miracle.” Instead, it was a gut-wrenching heartbreaking disaster.
Kranz never let his focus waver – WORK THE PROBLEM.
Andy Weir’s fantastic novel, The Martian, and the equally wonderful Ridley Scott film of the same name is all about this three-word mantra – WORK THE PROBLEM.
Mar’s astronaut, Mark Whatley, was stranded alone on the red planet. Every decision he had to make revolved around WORKING THE PROBLEM. At the end of the film he told a group of NASA student astronauts;
“You begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, then the next one and then the next one. If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
How to Work the Problem
The formula is elegantly simple:
- Define the problem so there is understanding. State it out loud. Sketch it out so you can see it.
- Break it into pieces if you need to.
- WORK THE PROBLEM.
Stay focused. Lead your teams. WORK THE PROBLEM!
If you’re looking for more resources on how to lead your teams, here is a quick piece we did on the 3 keys to leading effective teams.