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Focus, Discipline, and Grit: Hallmarks of Great Leaders

Image of man suspended over shark tank

That successful entrepreneurs have to be gritty is not news. Tenacity and perseverance enable founders to accomplish goals that may take years to achieve. People who start businesses that endure surmount a host of challenges (like wondering how to generate enough cash to keep the doors open and also feed themselves) along the way.

Focus, discipline, and tenacity are also hallmarks of great leaders. Little demonstrates a leader’s grittiness more than the ability to effectively navigate a disaster. The movie, Apollo 13, demonstrates crisis management and gritty leadership at their best.

Leadership Lessons from Apollo 13

Remember the scenes where disaster after disaster happen? The life-threatening drama begins when Jack Swigert replaces Ken Mattingly as pilot a few days before Apollo 13’s scheduled lift off. Bringing Swigert on disrupts the team’s chemistry, cohesion, and levels of trust. Then, the oxygen tank explodes during cryostir and the ship loses power. Next, the CO2 reaches toxic levels and the crew needs to improvise building an air scrubber. Finally, NASA realizes damage to either the ship’s heat shield or parachutes could cause failure upon re-entry. Each of these instances created a life-threatening situation.

Yet, through it all, Jim Lovell, the Flight Commander, and Gene Kranz, NASA’s Flight Director, adhered to some basic leadership principles that enabled the crew to survive. They:

Image of Apollo 13 after retrieval

Image Credit: NASA

  • Acknowledged the gravity of the situation
  • Acted deliberately with composure and  urgency
  • Assessed status quickly and systematically diagnosed root cause problems
  • Expressed anger or frustration, but only as a punctuation mark to motivate others
  • Defined goals and committed to them absolutely
  • Eliminated chaos by requiring others to “stay cool”
  • Demanded ingenuity and speed to develop contingency plans
  • Reinforced teamwork by respecting everyone and blaming no one
  • Recognized and encouraged people for their ongoing contributions
  • Used humor to lighten the mood
  • Expressed total faith in a successful outcome
  • Communicated clearly and frequently
  • Made command decisions when necessary

Gene Kranz’s character makes a number of powerful, moving pronouncements throughout the movie, including:

“I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do. So let’s get to work. Let’s lay it out.”

A clear vision during crisis is essential. When others doubted a successful outcome, Krantz claimed the Apollo 13 mission would be NASA’s finest hour. “We’ve never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option!”

Overriding An Emotional Hijack

Kranz’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility of failure kept the team focused on its new primary mission: Keeping the astronauts alive and returning them to earth.  His unwavering determination inspired the creativity and energy his team needed to spontaneously design new solutions.

While few executives deal with life and death situations, some circumstances can legitimately transition a company’s leader into crisis mode. The catch is that leaders who panic in the face of disaster lose the ability to lead. An emotional hijack prevents them from making rational decisions at the precise moment in time when only the rational brain can figure out how to survive.

It takes a high degree of self discipline to step back and take a moment to let the rational brain process new options when stress levels peak. A gritty leader figures out how to channel this excess energy in a positive direction.

© 2012. All rights reserved.

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