On this day in 1970, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert were launched into space on their fateful Apollo 13 mission. Three days later, the oxygen tank on their service module exploded, leaving their spacecraft largely disabled, hurtling toward the moon, with only a slim chance that the three astronauts would make it home alive. As we know, however, they did return to earth alive in one of the most harrowing stories of persistence, ingenuity, and courage in U.S. history. The crew and support staff of Apollo 13 will forever be known as heroes in American lore.
But I would submit today that one of the primary reasons the mission ended with the successful return of these astronauts was the leadership of one Gene Kranz, the flight director in Houston during the mission. If you saw Tom Hanks' 1995 movie about the incident, Kranz's character was played by actor Ed Harris who uttered the director's famous line, "Failure is not an option!" And this, my friends, was why the mission was a success. Kranz pressed a vision of triumph on his staff and on the crew. He never allowed failure to enter his vocabulary. His singularity of purpose, drive, and confidence in the midst of tragedy is what kept everyone moving in the right direction.
The problem with so many leaders today is they don't believe in their organizations and people enough to press "the win." They are so burdened by selfish concerns, deep-seated distrust of their employees, and fear of failure that...well...they fail or at least don't reach their highest potentials. I know of an organization in my hometown where the leaders so loath their employees, so fear their competition, and are so narcissistic that what was once a thriving "business" has turned into a stagnant cesspool of employee discontent and organizational decline. It is sad to watch, but this organization is only a caricature of what it once was and, until its leadership changes, it will never recover.
So, why do organizations accept such poor leaders? In the case of the aforementioned organization, it is partially because the "business" is family-owned and, unfortunately, the current leading family member is no Gene Kranz. But the bigger problem in this organization and others is that people no longer know what good leadership looks like. Our culture has stopped reading classic literature, ceased studying world history, started venerating movie stars and athletes over true heroes, and begun replacing traditional family and culture values with cheap substitutes that give immediate gratification. Consequently, we are experiencing social and moral confusion and the result is fewer good leaders and even fewer who know how to judge good leadership. So, we blindly accept what we're given.
Of course, I don't want to present a completely bleak picture. There are many great leaders out there and many folks who know how to spot these leaders. What's needed, then, is for these people to develop their voice within our culture. These wise men and women among us must stop accepting society's lame-duck leaders; they must call them out, challenge their incompetence, and work to oust them from power. They must educate the rest of us on what good leadership is, and, more importantly, they must lead us themselves. Ok, I'll say it: it's time for the Colin Powells, Condoleezza Rices, and others to step back up to the plate and deliver their expertise to a country that desperately needs it. Right now, we are failing as a nation and as sub-cultures within our nation. We need some visionaries to take us into the future. For a country like ours that is teetering on the precipice of significant moral decline, failure is not an option.