Dialogue With Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell

By Thomas J. Lee

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 they would not land on the Moon. As depicted in the movie, they endured cabin temperatures down to 34 degrees Fahrenheit but, with the help of Mission Control, managed to find creative ways to save oxygen and power. 

Using the Moon's gravity as a slingshot, they flung themselves back toward Mother Earth. Still, they had to slip into a tiny window of the Earth's thin atmosphere. That meant correcting their course manually and precisely. Too little and they would burn up on re-entry. Too much and they would bounce off the atmosphere to oblivion. With only one chance, they got it exactly right, but no one knew it for sure until their three brilliant parachutes blossomed over the South Pacific.

(Even after the space capsule survived exterior temperatures of 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit on re-entry, Jim said, the capsule's interior was cold from the long flight home. He said it was still cold even after it was plucked from the ocean.)

Forty-eight years later, I vividly recall the crisis. Probably everyone my age does. Hundreds of millions of people around the world were riveted to black-and-white televisions.

Jim's memory of it all is remarkably detailed. At one point he even explained the electric circuity and capabilities of the spacecraft. I pulled a little 64GB flash drive from my pocket, and he told me it dwarfed the technical horsepower of the Apollo spaceship.

Jim said the movie was quite accurate except for a couple of dramatic moments that exaggerated interpersonal rivalries, along with some innocuous dialogue the screenwriters fabricated. But one poignant anecdote is entirely true, he said. 

In the midst of the crisis, as friends gathered to keep vigil at the Lovell residence, Marilyn asked his colleagues Armstrong and Aldrin to keep his mother distracted in front of the TV. Marilyn introduced the two world-famous astronauts to the elderly woman, who innocently asked: "Are you two boys in the space program, too?"

I asked Jim about optimism and self-confidence, which I have come to believe are essential components of successful leadership. He enthusiastically agreed. He singled out Mission flight director Gene Kranz, who famously declared to a couple of NASA suits contemplating the imminent disaster: "Gentlemen, with all due respect, I believe this will be our finest hour."

Jim looked at me. "And it was our finest hour," he said.

He told me that Marilyn recently reminded him of something that spoke to his own optimism. Back on the Apollo 8 flight — remember, it was humankind's first journey to the Moon — Frank Borman and Bill Anders, his two co-pilots, had both tape recorded love letters to their wives, to be opened only if they didn't return alive. Lovell hadn't done so, and Marilyn remembered. When she asked him why not, he replied that he was 100 percent certain he would be back — though sixteen months later the Apollo 13 crisis would cast some doubt.

Our conversation turned to the need to act decisively in a crisis. "I could have folded myself up in a fetal position and waited for a miracle. But if I had done that," he said, pointing to the heavens, "I would still be up there."

I asked him about the job of a leader to articulate high, value-based expectations and then enroll people to embrace those expectations as aspirations for themselves. Kranz did exactly that, Jim said, when he declared: "Failure is not an option."

One of only three astronauts to have flown twice to the Moon and the only one not to have landed, Jim said he was naturally disappointed that he had never set foot on the lunar surface. 

However, he believes today that Apollo 13 ironically made an outsize contribution to the space program because it captured the attention of people around the world and dramatically underscored the excitement and adventure of space exploration. My own two cents: Inspirational leadership is like that. Often, you have no idea how your own choices and behavior will ultimately inspire others. Just assume that they will.

At one point I asked him about the common tendency for self-preservation in bureaucratic cultures. The movie has a couple of scenes where that is evident. Jim said he believes a leader must create a culture where people are so focused on the mission that they don't act defensively. Rather, everyone must be concerned first and last about the big picture. 

In the movie, Kranz did that by assuring one nervous Nellie that he wouldn't be held accountable for a wrong prediction. In my own thinking on this subject, which I didn't share with Jim, extreme accountability can be at war with the truth, with self-confidence, with teamwork and collaboration, with creative thinking, and with agile opportunity. 

That led us to discuss another, related phenomenon: issue avoidance in times of imminent crisis and the concomitant reluctance to share negative information. "Happens all the time," Jim said. "But a responsible, wise leader cannot let it happen. You must insist on facts. Otherwise, your decision-making will be off." 

He also said that wise leaders keep their skeptics close at hand. They always listen to them closely and share their own thinking with them. That's essential for building commitment to a common vision, he said. 

Jim pointed to another famous explorer who believed the same thing. That explorer, too, survived long odds against survival and a return to civilization. His name was Ernest Shackleton.

(See also my review of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage under Books > Biographies, Memoirs, and Histories.)

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

By Thomas J. Lee

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.

Clearly, we had made an abysmal choice. Bedazzled and perhaps bamboozled by outward appearances, we were enraptured by his charisma, charm, eloquence, and energy—even at the expense of the truly important criteria of integrity, character, soulfulness, authenticity, and self-discipline.

Our pastor was scarcely the first leader to go down a dark path. Countless others—in religion and in government, in sports and in the media, on Wall Street and in Hollywood—have done likewise. From peccadillo to peccancy, so many individuals in whom we have placed our trust have profoundly disappointed us.

I have been studying and teaching leadership for a long, long time, and if there is one thing I have learned it is this: Pay less attention to such ephermal things as appearances, magnetism, and charm. Especially beware charisma, for charismatic individuals can be, and alarmingly often are, seductive of their own willpower and character. Instead, pay more attention to discipline, ideas, strategies, resourcefulness, ability, integrity, experience—and to the soulful dimensions of leadership such as vulnerability, empathy, self-awareness, authenticity, respect, and decency.

None of this is to say that interpersonal skills, communication, and relationships are unimportant. To the contrary. They are absolutely vital. But in the long run they depend more on who we are, especially in the face of pressure and temptation, than on mere appearances and charm. That's especially true of individuals whose personality is so enrapturing that they have all but coasted through the real challenge of forging and sustaining resilient, deep personal connection. Throw in wealth, looks, and smooth talk, and you have an explosive combination indeed.

Leaders are people. People are often weak. I'm not expecting perfection. But I am hoping for excellence, and charisma isn't necessarily part of it.

Can Control Freaks or Tyrants Ever Truly Lead?

By Thomas J. Lee

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?

Let's stipulate the essentials of both points of view. Yes, leadership involves bringing about a big change in thinking. And yes, leadership involves a voluntary or discretionary following. True leaders have a foot in both camps. Let's also stipulate that mutual respect, trust, and dignity are essential to the leadership bond that keeps the whole thing alive.

Still, after acknowledging all that and after wrestling with all the many troublesome questions, I came to the conclusion we need a way of reconciling morality, for good or ill, with impact. After all, at the risk of sounding like a nihilist, the fact is that Hitler had his adherents. Decades later, he still does. So just how can we square that brutish fact with our thinking about leadership? 

My answer was to develop a simple hierarchy, broadly faithful to the variety of leadership we have seen throughout history. It has four archetypes that admit a wide variance.

Each of the archetypes is a broad orientation defined basically by its attitude and disposition toward independent thought, speech, and action.

The most primitive orientation we call the absolute archetype. Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is hostile, crushing. As much as possible, it wants to prevent any such thing. It declares: No, you cannot!

From monarchs to megalomaniacs, history is replete with examples of voluntary fealty to such absolute leadership. At first glance none of it makes much sense. The 20th century is especially confounding, as the world had the benefit of 150 or 200 years of successful democracy to observe and emulate. Still, millions of people came under the seductive siren song of Nazism, communism, and fascism — some by will, some by apathy, some by force. They paid with their lives and reaped only havoc in return.

Wherever such a primitive brand of leadership has taken hold, it has required generations and selfless courage to cast aside. Most of the world has done just that. We have made it to what we now might call the traditional archetype.

Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is not outright hostile, but it is heavyhanded. As much as possible, this archetype wants to control it, to channel it narrowly, to determine who can think, say, and do what. It declares: You must!

Some of us, perhaps most of us, have evolved further to what now passes for conventional management and leadership. We call it the modern archetype. Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is willful. As much as possible, it wants to influence what you think, say, and do. It declares: You should!

So common is this archetype today that you can walk into any bookstore or library, and you will find scores of books asserting that influencing people is the central task of leadership. John Maxwell, a widely published author, goes so far as to assert that leadership is influence and influence is leadership period.

Now, in the 21st century, we are on the precipice of the next orientation of leadership. We can call it the progressive or liberal archetype (terms derived more from philosophy than contemporary politics). Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is hopeful, trusting, confident. As much as possible, it seeks to inspire what people think, say, and do. It declares: You can!

So we have gone from preventing independent thought, speech, and action to controlling it, and from controlling it to influencing it, and now, hopefully, from influencing it to inspiring it.

So where do Hitler and other tyrants come in? 

To the extent they build the fealty of others to gain power, they are squarely in the first quadrant: absolute leadership. They were or are indeed leaders, especially in the early going, when they muster support among enough people to account for a critical mass. But that initial and voluntary support is not enough for their all-consuming appetite. They have a visceral need to prevent any independent thought, speech, and action, because their continuing domination of everything within reach depends on it.

Unfortunately, leaders can become tyrants, and in fact some of them do just that. Their leadership fails when, at long last, they lose or abandon respect, trust, and dignity for their followers, and thus for themselves, and when their followers also lose respect, trust, and dignity for the erstwhile leaders. Until then, yes, they can and may very well successfully lead people.

Why Are So Many Leaders Such Poor Listeners?

By Thomas J. Lee

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.

Most of all, you're deciding what to say in response. You're thinking, thinking, thinking. Smart people love to think. You do, don't you?

Bright people also tend to make judgments—lots of them, in rapid fire. So as another person is talking, you are making judgments about her intelligence, her knowledge, her diction, and maybe a few other things we won't go into here.

Finally, smart people are typically busy people. You probably have a lot of issues and decisions you need to address. It is tempting to think about these things whenever you have a few seconds.

Given the ubiquity of smart phones, you are also likely to be sending a text message or scrolling down your email or checking the progress of Frosty the Snowstorm on weather.com. You may even think you can multitask successfully. Hey, we're all a little delusional.

The big problem with all this is that people do notice it. At this very moment some of them are silently complaining to themselves that you don't listen. They may even be complaining aloud to one another. From that, they easily conclude that you don't care about their ideas.

Now if you're as smart as you think you are, you'll identify listening skills as an opportunity for self-improvement, and you will do something about it. There are lots of resources out there: books, tapes, videos, coaching. Our Master Class is one of many; we describe four levels of good listening, and we set forth an eight-step process for what we term affirmative listening.

The important thing is to do something. Otherwise people will get the sense that you think you already know everything, and you and I already know that isn't the case. We do, don't we?