Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

It isn't every day you get to sit down with a genuine American hero for an extended conversation about crisis leadership. Today, thanks to a mutual friend, I had the good fortune of doing just that.

Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, agreed to meet with me to talk leadership. We got together at a Starbucks in Lake Forest, Illinois, where he and Marilyn, his wife of 65 years, live on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

Having just turned 90 years old, he struck me as fully engaged, genial, and still sharp. He laughs easily and often, at one point joking that he probably disappoints people because he isn't Tom Hanks. Clearly, he learned long ago to cherish every minute of life.

For those of you who are too young to remember and who never saw Ron Howard's exciting movie starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, here are the basic facts. An onboard explosion in an oxygen tank, fundamentally caused by miscommunication over necessary voltage two years earlier, crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft en route to the Moon in April 1970, only nine months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had become the first persons to set foot on another heavenly body.

Until the explosion and crisis, all three television networks were ignoring this flight. After all, it was "just another" manned spaceflight to the Moon. We had already visited the Moon four times and walked on it twice (Apollo 11 and 12). Lovell himself had already orbited it (Apollo 8), when he and his co-pilots became the first persons to view Earth as a globe, to escape Earth's gravitational field, to see the other side of the Moon, and to view an Earthrise.

On Apollo 13, after assessing the worrisome situation, Lovell radioed back to Mission Control five words that have become iconic: "Houston, we have a problem." For long days afterward, the survival of the three astronauts was in doubt. They were running out of oxygen and burning too much electrical power. Many knowledgeable people, even at NASA, feared for the worst.

The crew — Lovell, Fred Haise, and last-minute substitute Jack Swigert — quickly accepted the fact that . . . 

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Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

Does Your Firm Run Like a Well-Oiled Machine?

How often have you heard someone pay tribute to a business, or to any other organization, by calling it "a well-oiled machine"? 

Fairly often, I'm guessing. As metaphors go, it's an oldie but goodie.

You hear it whenever costs come in under budget, whenever something is finished ahead of deadline, whenever a widget's quality clears a standard.

Little wonder. We all appreciate reliability and predictability. We want to depend on things. So we're happy when a promise becomes its own reality. When that happens consistently, we reach for the metaphors. Yes, it sure does look like a well-oiled machine. 

But should that apply to all companies and all organizations? Should every enterprise be run like a machine?

Color me skeptical. Maybe I am making too much of a few words, but hear me out.

Machines—even well-oiled machines—are just things. Things can do only what they are intended, built, and programmed to do. Their limits are thus the limits of their design, their technology, their maintenance, and their energy.

Mere machines cannot imagine anything else, anything different. They cannot develop anything new. They cannot notice and wonder. Apart from the most sophisticated diagnostic machines in hospitals and laboratories and the like, few can even identify and solve a problem.

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The Myth of the Charismatic Leader

The Myth of the Charismatic Leader

Let me tell you a story.

It's the story of my very first experience in grown-up leadership. I was all of 17 years old. The church that my family attended was recruiting a new senior pastor. Inexplicably, the elders — pillars of the community, all of them — asked me to serve on the search committee.

It was a heady experience for such a callow young man. I had never even held a full-time job, let alone hired anyone for a full-time job, and I certainly hadn't participated in any endeavor like this, for goodness sake. Yet here I was with an equal voice and an equal vote in the selection of the church's new leader. I would certainly learn a few things.

In some ways the experience was comical. I had all the executive documents, meeting minutes, and privileged personnel records of the candidates in my room at home. Naturally I was sworn to secrecy, and I was determined to keep that confidence. My mother, however, was pestered by the other ladies of her bridge circle to pry loose my secrets. I refused to budge. Not a peep. But one day I came home from school and noticed that my confidential files had been disturbed. My mother got a scolding! She fessed up, and I swore her to secrecy.

Well, after months of surreptitious Sunday visits to churches hundreds of miles from home, in-depth interviews, lengthy deliberations, due diligence, and multiple rounds of voting, the search committee issued a call to a pastor from southern California, and he accepted. He seemed to be a perfect fit. We wanted a young and energetic man, an eloquent speaker from the pulpit, and most of all a dynamic, charismatic leader. That's exactly what he was.

Forty-plus years later, I still remember the day he and his wife arrived at a cocktail reception the elders hosted to welcome them. (I came straight from school, and I was served Coke.) When the front door opened and the new pastor and his wife stepped in, his powerful physical presence brought forth an energy that immediately refreshed and rejuvenated. All the committee members and their spouses shared in the excitement. The church was heading in a new direction, for sure.

The next year I graduated from high school and went off to the university, and it was a couple of years after that when, on campus, I heard the scandalous news from home. Our young, dynamic reverend was irreverently involved in an extramarital affair with a beautiful widow whom he had been counseling in her grief. The pastor's wife asked him to move out of the parsonage. The church bulletin coyly printed a small item saying the pastor could henceforth be reached at a new telephone number. His ministry no longer tenable, the pastor soon resigned. Payton Place had nothing on my hometown.

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Can Control Freaks or Tyrants Ever Truly Lead?

Can Control Freaks or Tyrants Ever Truly Lead?

Was Hitler a true leader?

How about Stalin? Was he a real leader?

And what would you say about Mao? Pol Pot? Idi Amin?

Closer to home, is a CEO who rules by fear and terror a genuine leader? Where do respect, trust, and dignity — by the leader, for the led; and by the led, for their leader — come into play?

Can a dictator ever be a leader? Where do you draw the line between tyranny and leadership? Where, if anywhere, does one begin and the other end?

I teach leadership, both for bright university graduate students and for managers in business. Sooner or later, in almost every class, Hitler's name comes up. Then the other names: Stalin, Mao, ad nauseum.

Quite a few participants in every class say yes, Hitler was indeed a leader. How else can you explain his rapid emergence from obscurity to a merchant of mayhem wreaking tumult throughout Europe and beyond?

But just as many participants say no. They insist that by definition a leader generates a voluntary following, and that to conflate arbitrary fiat with genuine leadership is confusing at best and misleading at worst.

The questions only get tougher: What exactly is leadership, and what, after all, does it mean to lead? Is it always honorable? If it is mere influence devoid of a moral metric, should we think of a carnival barker as a leader? A heroin pusher? An advertising copywriter? A mugger with a gun? A political gerrymanderer? An advice columnist?

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Why Are So Many Leaders Such Poor Listeners?

Why Are So Many Leaders Such Poor Listeners?

Readers of this blog have little in common with one another. You live all around the world. You're young and old. You're rich and poor, man and woman, black and white.

But you do have a couple of things in common. One, you are interested in leadership and in the communication that enables and energizes it. Two, on the whole, you're a fairly bright bunch of people.

But that last thing, that can be a problem.

It's certainly a problem for anyone who aspires to lead people on a journey of change. Why? Simply because intelligence can get in the way of leading. Some of the worst listeners anywhere are really smart people. And because so many leaders are smart, they tend to be worse listeners.

That's right. It may come as a shock, so I will repeat it for emphasis. Leaders, because they are so often smart, have particular difficulty listening to other people.

Why are smart people in general, and smart leaders in particular, poor listeners?

Well, by definition, intelligent people absorb information fast. Researchers have found that intelligent people think at the rate of 500 to 700 words per minute. Even fast talkers speak at only 175 to 200 words per minute.

That's a lot of time—at least 36 of every 60 seconds—for smart people to be mentally doing other things while someone else leisurely finishes her own sentence.

What are you doing for those 36-plus seconds of every minute? Lots of things.

You're thinking about the agenda for tomorrow's meeting. You're sorting through candidates for the staff vacancy. You're remembering to get arugula at the fresh market. You're debating which movie to see tonight. You're wondering why this person is taking forever to make a simple point.

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The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

The Simple Secret to All Great Leadership

On any given day, the people you seek to lead may or may not hear, understand, believe, remember, or appreciate what you have to say. Nevertheless, you must speak your truth, and you must speak it often.

On any given day, the people you seek to lead will always notice, observe and remember what you do and how you do it. Never forget that people are always watching you. They are constantly comparing what you do and what you neglect or decline to do with what you say and what you said. That's accountability, and you like accountability.

Finally, on any given day, the people you seek to lead are determining for themselves whether to follow your lead. The decision is theirs and theirs alone. It is not yours. It will rest largely on whether they regard you as a person of noble purpose and integrity, as a person of principle, intellect, competence, high standards, and wisdom, and as a person who has their own best interests in mind and at heart.

So speak up, and speak up often, about what matters most, and then be your own first follower. To show the way, you must first go the way, for leading is all about following first.

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Leadership and the Proverbial Dessert Cart

Leadership and the Proverbial Dessert Cart

Think back to the last time you took the family out for a casual dinner. When it came to dessert, chances are the waiters didn't just bring you a simple printed menu.

More likely, they either described the choices in colorful language or, even more likely, brought a dessert cart to show you (and especially your kids) what you could order.

That wasn't by whim or accident. It was deliberate and carefully planned. By describing or illustrating the selections, the restaurant was expanding your possible options and, in the process, making it much more likely you would order that $9 slice of double-chocolate fudge cake.

The same goes for buying a new car. The salesperson is likely to put you behind the wheel and let you take it for a spin. In a few minutes you will have felt what it would be like to own and drive it.

The late Steve Jobs used to tell anyone who would listen, "You have to show people what's possible." 

Jobs, a masterful marketer, knew that, unless they saw what it could do, people would never buy an iPad. It wasn't something they could even think about, because it was unlike anything they had ever used.

Further, he knew you had to talk to people in terms they could understand. It was one thing to tell people an iPod had so-many megabytes. It was something else entirely to tell them they could have 1,000 songs in their pocket.

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A Leadership Lesson on Vulnerability — from the Oscars

A Leadership Lesson on Vulnerability — from the Oscars

Anyone who watched the Academy Awards the other night — and 36 million people did — had to be struck by the courageous candor of Graham Moore, the 33-year-old writer who won an Oscar for The Imitation Game screenplay.

The movie starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who is remembered today as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing did as much as anyone to win World War II for the Allies by cracking Enigma, the Third Reich's complex, mechanized process of encoding messages.

In spite of his intellectual heroics, Turing was prosecuted for the crime of homosexuality in the early 1950s. He accepted chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment and died a year or two later of cyanide poisoning, apparently by his own hand.

Moore, the young screenwriter, has something in common with Turing, and it isn't, as many people assumed, his sexual orientation. Rather it is a history of depression over self-perceived, felt differences from mainstream society, and an accompanying inclination toward suicide.

After the envelope was opened and his name was read Sunday night, Moore acted on an impulse. He told himself he would rarely have such an opportunity. Staring into the bright lights and the little black circles of the television cameras, he decided to use his 45 seconds of airtime to "say something meaningful." That, he did.

“When I was 16 years old," he declared, "I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong.

"And now I am standing here, and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or or she doesn’t fit in anywhere.

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