“Houston, We Have a Problem”:
Leadership in Times of Crisis
By Winston Scott
you’ve never been called upon to lead in a situation as fraught with
potential peril as the manual capture of a $10 million, 3,000 pound,
out of control satellite in outer space, but business leaders face
major crises all the time: a scandal involving senior management,
fall-out from an economic downturn, product malfunction and recall, or
the loss of a key employee.
Leadership under extreme conditions, like those encountered aboard the space
shuttle Columbia mission in 1999, requires key principles that will
guide you, your team, and your mission to success. The Columbia mission ultimately succeeded, and using the same principles of
leadership that worked on this space mission, business leaders can
turn an obstacle into an opportunity, too.
Lesson #1: Prepare for the
unknown: A leader
needs to anticipate potential problems as part of preparation. The
original Columbia mission was to launch a research satellite called Spartan, but it
malfunctioned almost immediately. The effort to retrieve it for repair
went awry when the shuttle’s robotic arm inadvertently tipped the
satellite, setting this object, roughly the size and weight of an
automobile, spinning unpredictably in space. Because NASA and the Columbia
crew already prepared for potential problems, they immediately knew
what to do next: have two spacewalking astronauts – one on his first
space flight – perform a dangerous manual capture of the satellite.
unanticipated problem occurs in business, like the astronauts, you
should be so thoroughly prepared that you already know what options
and resources might be available to help solve it. Otherwise, you
waste time trying to figure out your options, thus allowing the crisis
time to get even worse. So in your business, determine what possible
factors could cause your company to suffer, and then devise action
plans for each scenario. Should that problem ever occur, you already
know how to react and lead your team to victory.
Mission Lesson #2: Conquer
communication barriers: Get to
know the members of your team well and understand what their
particular communication strengths and weaknesses are, particularly in
times of crisis. Be careful not to assume that they understand you,
even those you think you know best. It’s never more important for
everyone to be on the same page than when you’re confronting a
problem. To ensure that the message you send has been received as
you wanted it to be, solicit feedback, asking “Do you understand
what I mean?” to encourage clarifying questions and honest responses
from your team.
was the other spacewalker’s second language, so the lead spacewalker
took extra care heading off potential problems by spending time with
him to ensure they were speaking the same language, literally, before
they attempted to capture the satellite together. What’s more, in
space, all direction is relative to something else, so to facilitate
the manual capture of a satellite while cruising at 18,000 miles an
hour, everyone on the team needs to know
what “up” and “down” mean in that context.
world of international space flight, there may be literal language
barriers to overcome, and in an organization, even if everyone speaks
the same language, the filters of culture sometimes put up obstacles
that you must use finely-honed communications skills to conquer. Men
and women are known to communicate differently, for example, and
business leaders must ensure that communications’ meaning and intent
are clearly understood by everyone, especially when trying to solve a
Lesson #3: Be alert for
non-verbal communication: A good
leader will pick up on cues to potential problems and
misunderstandings before they occur. For example, while both the robot
arm operator and one spacewalker on the Columbia mission were highly qualified individuals, both were on their first
space flights. The lead spacewalker observed the other spacewalker
talking very little and keeping to himself away from the group, so he
shared his own experiences on his first spacewalk to reassure the
other man that he empathized with his nervousness but was confident he
would do well.
business leader, you must know how key team members act on a normal
basis so you can gauge when something is awry and their behavior
changes. When a crisis occurs, is your usually social VP of Marketing
now keeping to her office, with the door closed and the blinds drawn?
Is your usually mild-mannered CFO now barking orders like a drill
sergeant? These are tell-tale non-verbal cues that you must step in
and lead your team more effectively, as the crisis is taking its toll
on your much needed key players.
Lesson #4: Ask for help: A leader
must demonstrate an immediate understanding of the problem.
You can’t be wishy-washy, even if, at the moment, you don’t
have a clue what’s going wrong. You need to show that you’re in
control, demonstrating self-assurance. Your people will follow
confident doesn’t mean omniscient. You must solicit input and
feedback from the experts on your team and from people outside of the
team as well. NASA rehearsed the satellite’s capture on the ground
and sent images up to the shuttle. The spacewalkers constructed a
Spartan simulator for practice, and the team leader rehearsed the
terminology to use in the capture and to direct the commander where to
fly the shuttle to get it close enough to the satellite so they could
reach out with gloved hands and manually direct the satellite back
into the shuttle.
don’t need to know every single nut and bolt involved in every
single person’s job, but there are people on your staff who are more
expert in certain areas than you are. Acknowledge that and benefit
from it when planning and problem-solving.
Lesson #5: Earn real
leaders, like astronauts, obviously need technical training in their
field, but equally important are maturity and experience at making
difficult real-time decisions. There’s a reason you never see
22-year-old astronauts! You must have complete confidence in your
ability to make critical judgments and to take action in tough
situations, and the only way to acquire that is to be seasoned by
mounted in foot restraints on the edge of the shuttle, the Columbia spacewalkers spent 3 ½ hours safely manipulating the satellite into
the single orientation that would fit it into the payload bay. The
leader had never had this particular mission to accomplish before, but
he did have a vast array of experience – even some mistakes – that
allowed him the focus and determination that were essential to keep
the 3,000 pounds of mass from getting out of control, where it might
injure the spacewalkers or damage the space shuttle.
came up through the business ranks, decisions you made may have cost
your department money, set back a safety record, or otherwise affected
some critical aspect of the business, but all of that is part of your
essential real-world education.
Reach for the Stars: As NASA
knows, one of the main considerations for hiring or promoting senior
management must be whether they have had experience, training, and
education in problem-solving, especially in a crisis situation. Have
they turned critical circumstances around? Do they thrive or shrink in
the face of disaster?
walking in space or walking into a boardroom, good leaders must not
only be prepared for everything that might go wrong, they must come
alive when faced with a predicament, large or small. Great leaders
have confidence, can communicate what’s necessary to handle a
problem, and know how to best utilize the skills of each member of
their team to solve it. The ability to lead in the face of a crisis
separates the great leaders, those who have “the right stuff,”
from those who don’t.
Read other articles and learn more
about Winston Scott.
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