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Failure is not an option

Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director

This impressive statement is attributed to Gene Kranz, who was no other than the NASA Flight Director for the Apollo 13 mission. Tragedies, emergencies and the likes bring out Leaders, the best and the worst kind and Mr. Kranz is an example of the first kind: he led the mission to success even when chances were slimmer than “possible”. He had to make a few decisions that required speed, certainty and calm. On him depended the life of the Apollo 13 mission. On him were the eyes of an entire Nation and most of the world. On him, the tremendous, ominous pressure of possible failure and with it the death of three astronauts.

For most of us it’s never like that, even for those who lead or manage a team or organization. None of our decisions are fatal, yet some can carry some danger to those we decide on. That is the burden for Leaders, the one nobody talks about a lot: your decisions will affect the life of others thus it requires all of your commitment and responsibility. If you are not heavily involved in that decision making, how can you carry any of those decisions to it’s end?

The lesson Mr. Kranz left for us, the one I still ponder about is what is the cost of Leadership? It is always when disaster strikes that eyes turn to those who lead or manage for a solution. It is a given fact that if a Leader is present, then the crisis might just go away or be sorted out. Everybody knows that if there is a problem, proper Leaders can solve it. We’ve all looked up to someone to fix it, and for those of us who’ve been on the other side, we know those looks and we know how to react. Most of the times anyway.

kirkBut what about preventing those crisis? What about Leaders being ready before it happened? Crisis are chaos, unplanned yet manageable, but what about those moments when Leadership can make a difference and it doesn’t? I’ve sometimes asked myself, what if the Oxygen tank’s explosion had been foreseen before it happened? The oxygen tank failure was caused by an unlikely chain of events, which led to the crisis and subsequent Kranz’s rescue mission. But before that, Kranz was already a leader who had successfully conducted a few missions and he was the Lead Flight Director after all. A Leader of Leaders.

The intent here is to wonder aloud: Leaders are more than crisis solvers, but it seems they are mostly needed when something goes wrong other than when things just work out. Everything else that comprises the craft doesn’t seem relevant after a Leader sorts out a crisis. Leadership could also be called “Crisis and miscellaneous Management” now that I think of it and it wouldn’t be an unfair assessment. This though, would be an incomplete and mostly blind-sided idea.

Preparing for crisis – a path all Leaders take.

For a Leader to overcome a crisis, there is path he or she has to take: it is called the “Day-to-day life of a Leader” and it’s never as notorious as a catastrophe of course and for most Leaders there’s never a moment of heroic success. But it’s that time, those days you spend thinking, listening, fixing and helping others that prepare you for a crisis. Even when one doesn’t train for that, even if there are some skills that are expected from Leaders that nobody tells you about or trains you on, you prepare for those ugly moments and desperate stares ever single day of your life as a Leader.

You do not sort out an accident or unexpected turn of events by just standing there and thinking about it: you must take action. For some people that’s an impulse and Hollywood has shown us those usually end up well but in reality, a Leader prepares for those moments every single day of his or her life while they lead only most of the times, they don’t know they are doing it.

They are not aware of the training because it’s implicit, the same way those who follow don’t see the piccardneed of a Leader if it’s not through a crisis, or a simple doubt. If you don’t have an answer, who do you turn to for one? A Leader. If something happens and you don’t have the ability or “power” to decide, who does? Leaders. Who is responsible for solving things when they turn ugly? Not the follower, but the one who leads. Before or after that Leadership is usually felt as an invisible force, or none at all if it’s just not very present.

It seems then that any crisis has the ability to paint Leaders with brighter, stronger colors: it makes Leaders visible, it transforms it from desirable to absolutely needed. It is what makes a Leader suddenly exist. It can also destroy the person leading if the crisis is not resolved properly, so I figured every single crisis is a pivotal moment in a leader’s life, which takes me back to the importance of being prepared even when you are not.

Leading before, through and out of crisis.

Becoming crisis-ready means just one thing: as a Leader, you must be ready to BE needed at all times. No problem is too small, no crisis too big. There’s no time to waste but every single issue you tackle counts so you must take the time to process and learn. Leadership is mostly needed when a crisis turns up, that is a true statement, but it won’t appear or get there if those who lead are not ready to do so. It all builds up to that moment when you become visible: when something hits the fan at a 100 miles per hour.

Leadership is a 24/7 need, but we only turn to it when we are in dire straits.

Think about it if you are part of a Leadership team and specially if you don’t feel like a hero or even if you don’t feel special at all. Stop, read and process: right now, reading this take, even now you are preparing yourself for the next crisis and when it hits, all eyes will be on you again.

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