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Executive Edge: If Apollo 13 happened in your organization, would you be prepared?

Updated: Mar 24, 2020



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Why traditional Leadership Development theory can often fall short.


You may never face the same situation as the NASA team that handled Apollo 13. But at any point, you may encounter high-risk situations in your business.


After all, we know that the world of work is more volatile, more uncertain and more complex than ever.


If you have an executive leadership role or aspire to one, how on earth do you prepare for such a mission? Information changes daily, even hourly, in ways that can have powerful - and unpredictable - impacts on your business.


Houston, we have a problem


Let’s consider for a moment the Apollo 13 real-life event. Though the seventh manned space mission lifted off five decades ago, its use as a learning tool is as contemporary as ever.


Apollo 13 astronauts were asked to stir the oxygen tanks, and when doing so, a small explosion crippled the spacecraft.


“The explosion onboard Apollo 13 marked the start of one of the greatest rescue missions in human exploration. But all the other fatal factors would remain: too little electric power, no fuel cell-produced oxygen to breathe, no power for the guidance system, or the thrusters,” recalled NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill.


So, were NASA mission control leaders educated on precisely what to do when an explosion crippled a spacecraft? Hardly.


Crystallized Knowledge and Fluid Thinking


In spite of all the educated engineers at Mission Control, the answers that day were not obvious. There was no manual on what to do when an explosion occurred aboard a spacecraft.


Generally, traditional education focuses on Crystallized Intelligence/Knowledge. It is predominantly the domain of the language-based, left brain which provides the technical knowledge and subject matter expertise on which you have built your career. It's about what you know, like multiplication tables or engineering formulas.


But today’s business challenges are more demanding and need a different type of intelligence and thinking.


You need to call upon your right brain, the domain of Fluid Intelligence/Thinking. This is the type of intelligence that stretches far beyond “what you know” and which allows you to be more effective in volatile, uncertain and complex situations where you can’t just rely on past experience.


Or to paraphrase child development pioneer Jean Piaget - It’s what you use when you don’t know what to do.


Fluid Thinking in Action


With a manned space flight at risk, the NASA team moved into action. But how? By exhibiting leadership behaviors underpinned by their Fluid Intelligence/Thinking.


Flight Director Gene Kranz intervened with a panicked ground crew to provide a great illustration of Fluid Thinking and Leadership in action. Let’s look at the components he demonstrated that day.


Focus: Kranz took control and said: “Stop, everyone, I can only process one piece of information at a time.”


Analysis: Then he said, “I need to know what just happened.” He got his team to analyze the situation and to work out exactly what happened.


Lateral and Innovative Thinking: “I then need you to come up with some options in terms of how we solve this.”


Risk Identification and Mitigation: “I want you to test those options using only what they have got on board the mothership.”


Critical Thinking and Abstract Thinking: “I want you to test the soundness of each option, and then identify the optimum solution.”


Strategy: “I want a strategy of how we're going to bring them back safely.”


Action: “Then we're going to execute the strategy because it's not an option not to get them back.”


Thankfully, the mission was successfully landed safely. But not because specific steps were checked off in a manual as the team labored to find a solution under extreme pressure and time constraints.


Instead, Fluid Thinking in a complex, chaotic and unpredictable environment helped the Apollo 13 mission control team solve a problem they had neither predicted nor trained for. They displayed the Executive Edge.


Do you have the Executive Edge?


You may never face the trauma of having lives at risk due to a disruption in your business. But business today has many of the same complications and challenges that Apollo 13 did: no obvious and easy answers in a chaotic, unpredictable situation.


Handling what used to be an exceptional situation has now become a business fundamental.


How to build Executive Edge in Your Organization


The ‘soft skills’ of being more Adaptable, Agile and Flexible have little to do with Crystallized Knowledge and everything to do with Fluid Intelligence/Thinking. In other words, developing more Fluid Thinking behaviors. This is the new Executive Edge.


Research shows that most executives are open to change and acquiring new skills to be more adaptable and agile. But 90% of executives say they don’t know how to develop these new skills. Traditional education and leadership development content simply won’t do the job.


CEOs, CFOs and CHROs must update their approach and investment in personal and organizational learning. They need to focus on building the Fluid Thinking capabilities demonstrated so ably by the Apollo 13 Mission Control leaders. Developing the cognitive abilities of senior executives, talent executives and emerging leaders must take priority.


This truly is the cognitive capital of an organization. This is the difference that will ‘make the difference’ for business in the future, and give your people and your organization the

Executive Edge.

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