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

By: Winston Scott
Last updated 4/18/2011

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 (the mission faced by the crew of the space shuttle Columbia in 1999), 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 Columbia, requires adherence to key principles that guide you, your team and your mission to success. The Columbia mission did ultimately succeed, and using the same principles of leadership that worked on this space mission, business leaders too can learn to turn obstacles into opportunities.

Space Mission Lesson #1: Prepare for the Unknown
A leader needs to anticipate any potential problems. The original Columbia mission was to launch a research satellite called Spartan, but the satellite 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 had already prepared for potential problems, they immediately knew what to do next. Two spacewalking astronauts—one on his first space flight—had to perform a dangerous manual capture of the satellite.

When an unanticipated problem occurs in business, leaders, like the astronauts, should be so thoroughly prepared that they already know what options and resources are available to help solve it. Otherwise, valuable time is wasted, during which the crisis may become even more dire.

So in your business, determine what possible factors could cause your company to suffer, and then devise action plans for dealing with each scenario. Should that problem ever occur, you will be able to react quickly and lead your team to victory.

Space Mission Lesson #2: Conquer Communication Barriers
Get to know the members of your team well. Ascertain their communication strengths and weaknesses, particularly in times of crisis. Don’t assume that even the people closest to you will understand your plans. It’s never more important for everyone to be on the same page than when you’re confronting a problem. To ensure that your message is communicated correctly, solicit feedback, asking “Do you understand what I mean?” to encourage clarifying questions and honest responses from your team.

English was the second language of one of the spacewalkers, so the lead spacewalker spent a lot of time with him to ensure they were speaking the same language, literally, before they attempted to capture the satellite. 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 major communication obstacles. Men and women may 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 to Non-verbal Communication
A good leader will pick up on cues to potential problems and misunderstandings before they arise. 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 that the other spacewalker talked very little and kept to himself, away from the group. In response, he shared his own experiences on his first spacewalk, reassuring 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 that you can recognize behavioral changes. When a crisis occurs, does your usually social VP of Marketing lock himself in his office? Does your usually mild-mannered CFO begin barking orders like a drill sergeant? These are telltale, non-verbal cues that you must step in and take the lead.

Space Mission Lesson #4: Ask for Help
A leader must demonstrate an immediate understanding of the problem. You can’t appear wishy-washy, even if, at the moment, you don’t have a clue what’s going wrong. You need to demonstrate self-assurance to show that you’re in control. People follow confidence.

Keep in mind, however, that confident doesn’t mean omniscient. You must solicit input and feedback from the experts both on your team and outside the team. 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 fields, 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 confidence is through real-world experience.

While mounted in foot restraints on the edge of the shuttle, the Columbia spacewalkers spent 3½ hours safely manipulating the satellite into the single orientation that would fit it into the payload bay. The leader had never before attempted this particular mission, but he did have a vast array of experience—even some mistakes—that gave him the focus and determination that were essential to keep 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 on-the-job education.

Leaders Reach for the Stars
As NASA knows, one of the main considerations for hiring or promoting senior management must be their level of 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 thorny situation, 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.

About the Author(s)

Winston Scott Winston Scott is a speaker, consultant and retired astronaut who has logged a total of 24 days in space, including three spacewalks. He is the author of Reflections from Earth Orbit, based on his experiences in space. For more information contact him at jazzairllc@aol.com or visit www.winstonescott.com