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Left of the Bang

By MG John Gronski (USA, Ret.)

A friend of mine had the honor of meeting Gene Kranz a few years ago. I have admired the leadership of Gene Kranz for a long time and my friend confirmed that what you see is what you get. Kranz continues to impart his leadership lessons and lives his life as a model for others to emulate.

Mr. Kranz lives in Texas. That should not be surprising since he worked in Houston for many years at NASA’s Mission Control Center.

Kranz began his career at NASA back in the Mercury days of the early 1960s after leaving the Air Force where he served as a fighter pilot. He worked in the mission control center through the Gemini program when he became flight director and remained in that role through the Apollo program. He gained notoriety for his calm under extreme pressure during the Apollo 13 mission, where he, with many other teammates, successfully brought three of our astronauts home safely after a critical systems malfunction.

Kranz and his team performed remarkably and stand out as a model of how a team leader and his or her team should function in a crisis. Just like most things, outstanding performance just doesn’t just occur. It happens because the leader has prepared their team long before dark clouds appear on the horizon.

What We Can Learn from Kranz

    1. Leaders must not lose their cool.

In the movie Apollo 13, Kranz was played by actor Ed Harris. When Kranz was interviewed about how well he was depicted in the movie by Harris, Kranz complimented the actor’s performance except for one thing. There was a scene in the movie where Kranz was seen losing his cool by screaming and kicking over a waste basket. According to Kranz that was Hollywood and never happened. Kranz is adamant that leaders must never lose their cool in a crisis. They must remain calm in order for their team to remain calm and focused.

    1. A positive mindset is essential.

Kranz was the type of leader who expected his team to perform at the highest standards. Kranz was an optimist and although he never did say “failure is not an option” (more Hollywood) he certainly believed it and had his team believing it. According to Michael Useem, an author and Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, high standards and optimism will not guarantee a favorable outcome but their absence will guarantee the opposite.

Optimism is believing that tomorrow will be better than today. However, a leader must have a plan that is believable to his or her followers to go along with that optimism. Kranz was able to instill the belief in his team that they could successfully overcome any challenge. Even in the uncertainty of the Apollo 13 near-disaster Kranz never passed that uncertainty down to his team members. Kranz knew that leaders must harbor any uncertainty themselves and keep the team believing they will succeed.

    1. Leaders set conditions today to face adversity tomorrow.

Every leader who leads an organization long enough will face adversity. To overcome adversity leaders must develop resiliency not only in themselves but also in their teams. There is a phrase that I heard that I believe came out of the SEAL community that went something like this; One does not rise to the occasion, one rises to their level of training. It is up to a leader to have his or her team well-trained and prepared and Kranz did just that.

But just as importantly, he set other conditions too. Kranz empowered his team to speak up, demonstrate initiative, and make decisions. Those behaviors became ingrained in Kranz’s team. Those are essential attributes necessary for any team to perform well in a crisis and Kranz created an environment whereby his team performed that way all the time.

Style Matters

    1. We can learn much from Gene Kranz’s leadership style. Kranz got the best out of his people because he expected them to be the best. Most people will meet our expectations so it is wise to keep our expectations positive unless someone gives us a reason to believe otherwise.

Kranz organized and designed his team to enhance communication and efficiency. Kranz worked hard to make sure that he was technically proficient. However, he was humble and never believed he was the smartest person in the room. He understood that the reason a leader has a team around them is because leaders rarely have all the answers. Kranz got to know his people and created a culture where the team members felt they were valued and that they belonged.

Most importantly, Kranz led with character and integrity. He cultivated trust within his team and everyone on the team knew they could count on their leader and on one another.

Gene Kranz had the right stuff. He was a leader who had his team prepared so they were ready to go “left of the bang” that occurred that fateful day of April 13, 1970.

About John Gronski

Major General John L. Gronski (U.S. Army Retired) is the founder and CEO of Leader Grove LLC, a leadership consulting firm. John is the author of two books, “Iron-Sharpened Leadership” and “The Ride of Our Lives” and he is an international and Fortune 500 speaker.

A decorated combat Veteran, infantryman, and Ranger School graduate, John is a transformational leader and has significant experience in business as a management consultant, where he led teams implementing large, complex projects. He now serves as an executive coach, leadership consultant, and trainer.

Learn more about John Gronski at  https://johngronski.com/

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