Use the lessons of World War II and Apollo 13 to lead change in your business

Thought Leadership on Leadership Development Developing the Next Generation of Leaders presented by The Alternative Board – BWI

Within every organization, you’re likely to encounter certain pitfalls that can trip you up on the way to real change. One typical pitfall is complacency. You may believe that a change is needed – it might be due to a regulatory issue or a technological advance – but your coworkers may not agree. You’re likely to hear “We’ve done it this way for years” or “Hey, we’re still making money.” People who don’t yet share your sense of urgency can slow or stop the energy for change.

A good leader has to expect complacency and begin to create a critical sense of urgency – an emotional connection to the need for change. All the spreadsheet logic in the world won’t persuade most people that change is needed. They must feel it.

On every new endeavor, a leader should establish a sense of urgency and a clear direction. Identify the skills you need and assemble the right team, and be sure to set the tone and expectations for behavior with your first meetings and actions. Also, define and achieve some immediate goals and tasks, such as the deliverable of a prototype or the result of a client interview. And going forward, challenge the team regularly with fresh facts and information, and exploit the power of positive feedback, recognition and rewards.

The lessons of World War II

Additionally, spend lots of time with your team. This step is challenging because likely you’ll have to do some of it virtually, but it’s important. Historians have learned that in World War II, the battle in Europe was not won by the generals but by the sergeants, second lieutenants and captains at the front. Generals rarely came to the front, and some of the worst wartime disasters stemmed from the fact that they didn’t know what their troops at the front knew all too well. Consistent wins amid the disasters came from small front-line groups with tight connections to their leaders.

Colonel John Boyd, the American fighter pilot who changed the way every air force in the world flies and fights, and taught the U.S. Marines how to fight a war on the ground, gave us the basic tenet for small-team decision making. Boyd’s thesis on decision making was the OODA Loop – observe, orient, decide and act. Boyd’s OODA Loop is the basis for the modern conclusion that leaders have to be in close touch with their teams if they want to remain effective. The ability to decide and act based on observation and an awareness (orientation) of the current situation is fundamental to all next-generation leaders.

Finally, let’s review a famous example of the ultimate high-performing team: the mission control team for Apollo 13. Remember the statement “Houston, we have a problem,” made famous by Tom Hanks’s character in the Apollo 13 movie? The original line was “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” but whichever tense you prefer, it reminds us of the amazing work of the team and its leader, Gene Kranz, of bringing the Apollo 13 astronauts back to earth safely after an explosion on board their space capsule. Kranz operated by this rule: “Failure is not an option.” Given the high stakes and the outstanding results they achieved through trust, relentless hard work, and a passionate sense of mission and purpose, this team performed better than perhaps any in history.

A small team with a leader who observes, knows the team’s orientation, makes a decision and then acts swiftly, can save lives and also save companies. You can do the same for your new projects!

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