Let’s go to the movies!

Jun 1, 05

This Month

Movies… can make us laugh, cry, be inspired or plumb us to despair. Most can recall a movie that involved them emotionally. The vivid visuals stay longer in our memories.

This issue is about how a movie can be used to teach management concepts at the work place in a fun and interesting manner. Apollo 13 offers great lessons to all of us who aspire to be great leaders!

Watch the movie and see what you can learn from it! Share a movie that you learnt from!

Warm wishes,


Let’s go to the movies!

Movies primarily allow for teaching left brain concepts with right brain simulation. The visual impact offers insights on human behavior under various situations that is retained for a longer time. If movies promote discussion with colleagues, allow for people to share their learnings and examine ways in which they can be translated into behaviours that can be applied at the work place, then it can become an extremely powerful tool of learning.

While there are a number of movies that present great management lessons, Apollo 13, perhaps ranks the highest among the most memorable of movies that offer lessons that can be applied back at the workplace.

Lessons from Apollo 13

“Houston, we’ve had a problem” is a line ingrained among many who have watched the movie “Apollo 13”.

It was the year 1970, nearly a year after Apollo 11 had safely landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Two days into the mission, 320,000 kilometres from Earth, one of the two oxygen tanks broke down and the crew started losing oxygen and power supply.

With the crippled space craft still hurtling its way to the moon, the team at the ground under the leadership of Flight Director Eugene Kranz had to take some critical decisions to bring with three men on board, safely back to earth.

Does the team at the ground succeed in bringing the three men on the spacecraft back? How does the team work under extreme conditions of stress, with the burden of the knowledge that three lives depend on them. The team also know that the supply of oxygen and power were limited and what would work in the space-craft was not known.

Here are some of the lessons the movie “Apollo 13” holds for leaders and for people at the workplace.

Leading the team at the ground: Soon after the explosion, the team at ground paniced with the disaster staring at them. Eugene Kranz focused everybody’s attention to look at what was working in the space craft and stressed on the importance of keeping cool.

“What do you think we’ve got in the space craft that’s good?”
“Let everybody keep cool. Let’s solve the problem. Let’s not make it worse by guessing.”

During his many briefings throughout, he urges his team to “work the problem”. Eugene Kranz later shared his thoughts on the situation saying, “The leader has to be unflappable. No matter what is going on around you, you have to be cooler than cool. You have to be smarter than smart.”

Positive Thinking: While we all understand the importance of positive thinking, it is people who have been at the brink of a disaster who reinforce this critical quality required to succeed.

Eugene Kranz continuously demonstrates this quality as we see in the movie.

“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!”
On hearing a NASA official state that, “This could be the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” Kranz responds, “With all due respect, Sir, I believe this will be our finest hour.”

When you do not know what the future holds, is such talk an act of bravado or faith in your abilities?

To a team looking up to a leader for direction, uncertainty or lack of faith could itself be a cause of disaster. While it is natural to have doubts, “you do not pass uncertainty down to your team members”. According to Eugene Kranz, “Once you think of surrendering, once you think of capitulation that is the path you go down. As soon as you start thinking that way, you really have lost… the mental sharpness, the mental edge that is going to take this survival situation and bring it to a successful conclusion.”

Thinking out of the box: Throughout the movie, one can see the need for the team to think innovatively and to come up with radical ideas that would go against what they have been typically trained to do or follow. In the wake of the incident, Eugene Kranz gets his team to “Forget the flight plan, from this moment on we are improvising a new mission. How do we get our men home?” and to look at everything afresh, “I don’t want to know what anything is for. The question now is, what can it do?”

Nowhere is this most convincingly demonstrated that when the team literally has to invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. The carbon dioxide levels in the lunar module were fast rising, a new filter had to be created with the material available in the spacecraft.

Believing in your people and demanding the best: One of Eugene Kranz’s very first job in the face of the disaster was to get everybody involved who could contribute. He sought inputs and information from the best talent and experts available. He defined his role in this way, “My job was basically to orchestrate all the players, recognize the problems, point people in the direction if we had more than one way to do a job, get the players to bring their stuff in, listen to them, and send them back.”

Teamwork: The entire success of the mission hinged on one critical factor, ‘Teamwork’. Without the entire team putting their best put forward, the men could not have been brought back. Kranz, in a speech he gave once, emphasized the importance of teamwork as an essential element in mission control. “There, we learn the difference between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ component of the team,” he said, “because when the time comes, we need our people to step forward, take the lead, make their contribution, and then when they’re through, return to the role as a member of the team.”

Decision Making: There was a continuous need to take quick decisions, each successful decision, a small step towards achieving their final goal, the goal of bringing the three men on board the space craft back alive. There was lot of information coming in, there were many contrary opinions given by experts who knew more about the problem in their specific areas than Eugene Kranz. There was also the time factor. In Gene Kranz’s words, “You’ve got all of the sources of knowledge. You’re accepting their input, then you’re testing its validity, and then you’re adding all the pieces together to get the total picture.” It was also important to have all the options before them while arriving at a decision, “Being a pilot, you always want to keep as much runway ahead of you as you can… you always want to have as many options out in front of you, because those are the things that give you the ability to change course.”

Further Reading

A summary of the Apollo 13 Flight
Failure is Not an Option – The Untold Story of Mission Control, History Channel


The Leadership Moment, Michael Useem
It has a chapter on Eugene Kranz. This book is a source for number of quotes attributed to Eugene Kranz.
Lost Moon, Jim Lovell
Failure is not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond, Gene Kranz

Suggestion of the Month

Find some one who inspires you. Put to practice atleast one of the traits that inspires you in your life!

This is what Martina Navratilova had to say to Sania Mirza, two tennis players who inspire me, “Love what you do and do it to the best of your ability. Give 100% on the practice court, in preparation, in matches. Take care of details-fitness, rest, training, diet. Also balance tennis with other things.” (India Today, February 2005)


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