Failure is not an option

I am at our annual customer event and we had the privilege of listening to Eugene Kranz. He took us through the entire Apollo 13 saga in a 1-hour long speech. He did not use any slides but he used some pictures from the Apollo 13 program as props throughout. Yes, i have seen the movie Apollo 13 several times. But hearing it straight from Gene Kranz is an experience in a different league altogether. A few interesting observations: 1. At a point Gene had to make a decision to either chose the shorter 1.5 day return route or the longer 3.5 day return route which goes around the moon. Gene Kranz made the counter-intuitive decision to take the 3.5 day return route. He mentioned that he made the decision based on his gut. It turned out to be a great decision later when the team figured out the extent of the damage on the spacecraft which would have made the 1.5 day route impossible. 2. At another point, 3 of his superior officers come and give him 3 different suggestions. He overrode all of them and made his own decision. When he was asked how he did it – he pointed to the job description of the mission controller (interestingly it is only 1 line long) – “Mission controller can make any decision to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the mission.”  He pointed out that that description gave him more authority than his superiors in some ways and additionally his superiors trusted his judgement. Overall he said there are 4 important things if you want to prevent failure – leadership, values, trust and team work. He was able to bring out the human drama, the tension and everything in a truly memorable speech. The entire audience of 500 people were up on their feet and gave him a standing ovation. What a great moment for a speaker.


  1. Anonymous said November 9, 2006, 1:54 pm:

    Sukumar, how beautifully you captured the ambient electricity of this speech and speaker. From the moment Mr. Kranz began to speak, he locked the full attention of the audience, which consisted predominantly leaders from major global enterprises. He led the leaders. No one got up to leave the conference room. The usual murmurs of side conversations that so rudely take place during presentations was absent. The leadership energy that Mr. Kranz radiates was evident. I believe that this rare personality trait that Mr. Kranz possesses was a tremendous beacon of trust and confidence for him while he lead the Apollo 13 mission team through its days of crisis.

    I personally found additional guidance beyond the four points of leadership, values, trust, and team work that Mr. Kranz carefully enumerated no fewer than three times during his discourse. I also believe that he was delivering the message that we as team members regardless of our positions within the team hierarchy will effectively buttress the team’s success if we learn to have confidence in ourselves and nurture the skills that represent our portion of the team’s mission. If we cannot project our conviction and competency, which leads to trust, we weaken the team. If we cannot disagree respectfully, with or without a job description that empowers us, to present and defend optional courses of action, then we are just individuals assigned to the project. We will not contribute to team work, trust will wither, values will become distorted, and leadership will be weak.

    Mr. Kranz was telling us that we as individuals must approach life with the daily attitude that failure is not an option. With that attitude, even the most junior team member is making a mighty contribution to leadership.

    If I could only participate in one more motivational presentation in my life, I would elect to replay this one.

  2. Anonymous said November 10, 2006, 3:33 am:

    Thanks for the comments Bill. I totally agree, this is one speaker that you can keep listening for hours, days, years and would still be rooted to your seat. He has that electrifying presence/charisma to hold the audience in rapt attention. have not seen many people do that.

    BTW, it was great meeting you in person, finally.