September 2016

Leaders and Staying Cool Under Pressure

by Ed Ruggero

Just two days into their nearly quarter million mile flight to the moon, an explosion in an oxygen tank forced the crew of Apollo 13 to abandon their lunar mission and jury rig their wounded ship in the hopes of getting back to earth. The nation and much of the world was riveted as astronauts and NASA teams scrambled to come up with solutions to problems no one had anticipated. Ron Howard's brilliant 1995 film "Apollo 13" told the story of the heroics to a new generation.

I was pretty excited about the opportunity to interview Fred Haise (right), one of the Apollo 13 astronauts, on-stage at an event for business leaders in Boston. The program came together very quickly, leaving me no time to read the various books about that 1970 mission. When I reached Haise by phone, I told him, somewhat sheepishly, that my wife and I had watched the Oscar-nominated film to learn the story again.

"Of course I know that Hollywood takes liberties," I said. "Was this pretty accurate?"

Haise told me, "The only line Ron Howard took from the actual radio transcripts was Jim Lovell's, ‘Houston, we have a problem.' "

As part of his preparation, Howard had listened to all the recordings. He told the astronauts that he couldn't determine, just from those tapes, that there was an emergency. I asked Haise if that was because the transmissions were full of NASA jargon.

"No," Haise said. "It was because Howard didn't think we sounded all that excited."

I was silent for a moment. I wanted to ask the obvious questions, the ones that lent such drama to the movie: Weren't you terrified that you were going to die? That your spacecraft was going to break apart? Or, if it did make it back to earth, that it was going to ricochet off the atmosphere and go shooting into space? Or that the heat shield had been so damaged that you'd be incinerated?

"When you have an emergency in an aircraft, you stay calm and work the problem," Haise said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

This is a leadership trait we don't explore enough: the ability to stay calm under pressure. I suppose it falls under two common admonitions for leaders: "Know yourself," and "Control yourself." In other words, know how you are likely to act when everything is going south, and then, recognizing that people take their cues from their leaders, maintain your composure.

My friend Alan B. is a surgeon at a Philadelphia teaching hospital. He tells his students, "When you have a human body laid open on the table and something unexpected happens, that's when you need to keep your voice even and your hands steady."

Retired Marine Dave R. was in command of a tactical operations center in Iraq when they were threatened with direct attack, when wounded Marines needed an airlift that wasn't there, when another patrol came under heavy fire. Dave told the Marines handling the radios and orchestrating the response, "Your tone can spread panic as fast as anything. Take a breath, keep your head, remain calm."

On July 3, 1863, Federal troops dug in on Cemetery Ridge anticipated that the great Confederate bombardment was just a prelude to an assault (which has come down to us through history as "Pickett's Charge"). Major General Winfield Scott Hancock knew his men looked to him to set an example. He stayed on horseback, riding slowly and calmly along his own lines, even as the ridge all around him exploded with incoming fire.

Few of us will be tested as these leaders were. But there may come a time when it will be easier to give in, at least a little, to a rising sense of panic. We can choose to see these moments as opportunities to shine as leaders, to serve others when they are in real need, to earn the title (official or not) of "leader."

Ed Ruggero is the creator and facilitator of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which participants visit the site of the Civil War battle to learn how to better lead modern organizations.