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“Houston, We Have a Problem”: 
Leadership in Times of Crisis 

By Winston Scott

Perhaps 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.

Space Mission 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.

When an 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.

Space 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.

English 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.

In the 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 problem.

Space Mission 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.

As a 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.

Space Mission 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 confidence.

But 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.

You 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.

Space Mission Lesson #5: Earn real experience: Business 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 experience.

While mounted in foot restraints on the edge of the shuttle, the Columbia spacewalkers spent 3 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.

As you 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.

Leaders 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?

Whether 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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