Failure Is Not An Option
“If you fall to pieces in a crisis, there wasn’t much to you in the first place.”
Proverbs 24:10 The Message Version
April 13, 1970 was a day that was seared into to memories of more than just a few men floating in space. Nine months after the successful Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, these famous words were relayed to NASA Mission Control, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Eugene Kranz, then thirty-six years old, would take the lead on what would be a most historic rescue of the men who’s lives hung in the balance during the fateful Apollo 13 mission.
Today we are facing a societal challenge that’s as grave as history may ever remember. My hope is that some of the lessons learned from Kranz might guide you and our global community through what now seems perilous and daunting.
Breaking Through the Pessimism of Circumstance
The situation was dire. An explosion had led to the breaking down of half of the ship’s oxygen tanks and two-thirds of their fuel cells. Their life-support systems were crashing around them at a death-defying rate. As NASA engineer Sy Liebergot described it, “We were on the point of losing everybody and everything.” Yet rather than allowing his team to enter a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophesies, Kranz seized the moment. Exhibiting strength in his calm, sanguine nature, Kranz relayed the following to his team:
“Let’s everybody keep cool.”
Panic was not an option for the NASA team in that moment and Kranz wanted to remind those around him of that. Every minor detail of each decision was a matter of life and death. Rather than become overwhelmed by the moment Kranz honed everyone’s thoughts on what they needed to do at that instant. As he later stated, “You do not pass uncertainty down to your team members.”
Right now you are likely feeling a constant stream of fear and anxiety due to the onslaught of COVID-19. I do not mean to downplay it’s severity but you can either dwell solely on the dreadfulness of it or calm yourself and begin focusing on what you can do about it in this moment...
“Let’s solve the problem.”
Leaders know that you can only focus on a problem for so long. Eventually you must shift your attention to solutions. Kranz understood that not only did they have a major problem on their hands but that time was limited for them to figure out a solution to save lives. As he put it, “Once you think of surrendering... that is the path you go down... As soon as you start thinking that way, you really have lost... the mental sharpness, the mental edge that is going to take this survival situation and bring it to a successful conclusion.”
Where can you transition energy from staying lodged in the constant negativity of what’s going on toward something positive? Can you turn off the news and call to check on someone you love? Can you stop continuously worrying and through prayer turn over these circumstances to God? What can you do now to prepare yourself so that, God forbid, you have the mental and physical strength to take on a direct challenge to your own family? Stop focusing on the problem and get working on the solution.
“What do you think we’ve got in the spacecraft that’s good?”
Rather than harping on what his astronauts DIDN’T have, Kranz drew attention to what WAS available to them. By doing so his engineers unleashed a wave of creative ideas that provided life-sustaining rationing for the astronauts to survive with. Kranz describes this approach as “a positive frame of mind that is necessary to work problems in a time-critical and true emergency environment.”
As a nation we will need to start thinking this way. Some of my wife’s friends want to begin sewing masks for our friends working in health care to help protect them and their patients. We have started to spread the word on the emergency food pantry items being provided to our community by our church. We are using the time with our kids to teach them valuable life lessons and to draw closer as a family and to our Creator. Do an evaluation of your own life and find what’s good in your own ship and begin using it to make a positive difference.
Make it a Successful Failure
It is hard to think of a future when we will describe this current time as successful. Yet it is my hope that we can do so, even if only in some small yet meaningful ways. Many of us will know someone impacted by the loss of life and livelihood due to this insidious virus. My hope though is that we will one day think of this time, as astronaut Jim Lovell described the Apollo 13 mission: “I like to think it was a successful failure.”
In the midst of the chaos I pray that you will keep your cool. That you will focus on solving the problems before you and that you will find the good that is around you. Let’s all make these moments as successful as we can even as we fail in so many ways. Yes, some of us may fail as individuals, but as Eugene Kranz succinctly put it, “The individual can fail, but the team cannot.” Be heroic today for the team around you, and God willing our team shall not fail.
 The Leadership Moment, Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All, Michael Useem