top of page

Extra Ordinary

Nick Elsom

April 17th 2020 marked 50 years since Apollo 13 emerged from the dark clouds above the South Pacific Ocean. The three astronauts were safe; an outcome which had seemed unlikely just three days earlier, when an explosion ripped away the side from the spacecraft and set in motion one of the most remarkable rescue operations ever undertaken.

We’ve all seen the movie. The BBC released a powerfully emotive and detailed podcast called ’13 Minutes To The Moon' which reveals exactly how the rescue worked through first hand accounts and recorded transmissions. It’s an enthralling and eternal story, in the words of narrator Kevin Fung; “there is so much we might learn from the people who flew and saved that mission. Even today. Especially today”

And from Jim Kelly, who worked closely with John Aaron to compile an extraordinary process to power down the Odyssey (the capsule that would have to protect them from re-entry), and then - unprecedentedly - power it up again to bring them home. “We weren’t heroes” he says, “we were ordinary people with a basic understanding, a little bit of physics, a little bit of math, a little bit of science. And that’s all we had. Just normal people”

Most of us will never have to be tested in such extreme, life or death circumstances. But we do all face challenges in life, and especially in our work, which demand a response. And it’s here that the lessons are abundant and simple, especially as we all experience challenging, though not unprecedented times. And let’s be blunt, the astronauts would not have returned home safely if - say - Donald J. Trump had been flight controller back then, instead of the remarkable Gene F. Kranz.


Look at me!

Narcissism is perhaps more a condition than a behaviour, but the results of a self-first approach would be much the same. Knowing when to lead, when to act, and when to get out of the way are a lot harder when the lens through which you judge a response starts and ends with self interest. Gene Kranz appointed John Aaron - who was only 27 at the time - to lead the power down effort, without hesitation. He was the expert, he had identified the problem, he was given the responsibility to find the solution. Compare and contrast with Dr Fauci last year, a proven world expert in his field, left sidelined and wasted.

I was once advised that life in a big corporate would split roughly as 80% of my time utilised on personal politicking and PR, and the remaining 20% doing whatever the job was. This was, and is, a dispiriting piece of insight, and yet I’ve seen it in action over and over again. Simply scaling this approach up to an entire leadership team, and probably those who aspire to it, and then those that they advise, all offering just 20% of their potential to the aims and visions of the company, would offer a compelling rationale for the underperformance of so many businesses.

And narcissism isn’t necessarily behind every bad decision, every mistake made. But the behaviours that are displayed every day in the name of ‘our people’, or ‘our customers’, which in reality are driven by the desired outcome ‘for me’ look an awful lot like those of a keen self-admirer.

The last words are from Jerry Bostick, a senior and experienced member of the Mission Control team back in 1970.

"You’re going to face problems in life, and you may not be able to see the end solution. But you know what the desired solution is, so you just take it one step at a time to head in that direction. Don’t ever lose sight of the end goal but don’t try to get there immediately…have confidence in yourself and in your team. Rely on your team mates and don’t try and do it all yourself”

bottom of page