Bob's Gutsy Leadership Blog

A Reminder from John Glenn and the U.S. Space Program

John Glenn’s recent death reminds us that as the first man in space in 1961, he set off a hugely successful space program that demonstrated a remarkable track record of excellent execution of very risky journeys. There are few blemishes on its record and you can really learn from studying the one that sticks in everyone’s mind, namely, the disastrous launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 when the entire crew died in a disastrous explosion of the rocket and put the entire space program at risk.

The night before that tragic launch, engineers from Morton-Thiokol urged NASA managers to delay. They were worried that the cold weather forecast for the next day could cause problems with the rubber O-rings that seal the joints in the solid-fuel booster rockets. NASA’s Director of Science and Engineering was furious at Thiokol engineers and commented “I am appalled at your recommendation.” Ignoring the feedback, NASA launched the shuttle despite the cold weather. The O-rings failed creating a terrible catastrophe.

A Businessweek article recently commented on this incident and noted the fact that investigators looking into the disaster showed NASA was likely a victim of “group-think,” where individuals seldom have the nerve/courage to speak their mind in the face a prevailing point of view, often put on the table by the leader.

There are important lessons here for leaders:

1.) Constantly Seek Out Concerns – Throughout the life of a project, it’s important for the leader to constantly probe for what people think can make the project get off track. When people know the leader is anxious to hear any kind of information that could pertain to problems, they are much more apt to provide it.

2.) Don’t be a Slave to the Calendar – When receiving alarming news at a late hour, it is maddening. The last thing a leader wants to do is to delay a project. On the other hand, that option needs to be seriously considered. Every attempt should be made to probe any concerns that emerge.

3.) Beware of Defensiveness – Once we get a plan in our mind there is a natural defensive reaction to anything that is going to challenge that plan especially when deadlines are near. We need to be aware of that tendency and fight it at every stage.

In summary, always be on the alert for any hints of potential problems. Strong leaders are incredibly paranoid!

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