(Part three in a three-part series)
Fred Haise, Jack Swigert, and Jim Lovell formed the crew of Apollo 13. Their mission was to demonstrate a precision lunar landing and conduct lunar exploration. It was the seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program, and the third planned to land on the moon.
On April 11, 1970, after more than 1,000 hours of mission training, the crew launched toward space from Cape Canaveral aboard a Saturn V rocket. Fifty-six hours later, as Apollo 13 reached an altitude of 200,000 miles above Earth, the crew heard a sharp bang, prompting Jim Lovell to utter the famous words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
They soon discovered that one of the power-generating oxygen tanks in the spacecraft’s service module had exploded, causing the remaining tank to also fail. Apollo 13’s mission instantly changed from exploration to survival.
Gene Kranz was NASA’s lead flight director for the mission control team in Houston. Working closely with the flight crew, Gene and his team assessed that there wasn’t enough power remaining to turn the spacecraft around and get it pointed directly back toward Earth. So they developed a plan to continue toward the moon and “loop around” it, using the gravitational force to “slingshot” the crew back to Earth. After four days of intense problem-solving and constant teamwork between mission control and the flight crew, Apollo 13 safely splashed down in the South Pacific.
Jerry Bostick was a NASA engineer during the Apollo 13 mission. Several years later he was asked in an interview what it was like inside mission control, and whether there were times when anyone panicked. His answer was, “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them” – which inspired the iconic line, “Failure is not an option” in the 1995 film, Apollo 13.
Although it’s unlikely your team is in the business of moon landings, it’s highly likely that your mission is critical and failure is not an option for you. That’s why the third focus area in The Leadership Triad that’s essential for leading a consistently high-performing team is your mission. And in my experience, effective mission focus boils down to “three P’s.”
The volume and velocity of information flow in today’s business environment is one of the main reasons why leadership in the information age is so challenging. Information saturation can make you feel like everything is a priority. But as the saying goes, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” By trying to be good at everything, you risk being average or worse at what matters most.
In a world where your team constantly struggles with information overload, the foundation for mission success is effective prioritization. As a leader, this means setting priorities that flow from your team’s purpose, and then saying “no” to some good things so your team can concentrate on the best things. That’s not always easy, but it’s vital to helping your team “keep the main thing the main thing” in pursuit of your mission.
Many years ago I had the honor of meeting one of the greatest coaches of all time, John Wooden, who coached the UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA basketball championships in a 12-year span in the 1960s and 70s. As a junior military officer always looking for pearls of leadership wisdom, I asked him if there was one thing he could point to that explained how he was able to lead consistently high-performing teams. His answer? Thorough preparation.
While mission success is founded on prioritization, it is formed through preparation. As a leader, perhaps one of the most important questions you can ask yourself is, “What am I doing today to help my team prepare for tomorrow’s opportunity, in order to achieve our purpose and reach our full potential?”
Finally, mission success is fueled through passion for excellence. In general, I’ve found that teams with a high standard of excellence have a leader who does two things: they set a high standard then hold themselves to a higher standard, and they are committed to continuous improvement.
To generate passion for excellence in your team, make regular debriefs part of your culture. After every significant event, take a few minutes afterward to discuss what happened relative to what you were trying to achieve, why it happened, and how you can work together as a team to improve. Start by acknowledging what you could have done better as the leader. Debriefing in this way will help you foster an atmosphere of open learning that can take your team to the next level of performance and mission accomplishment.
Mission success boils down to focusing on “the three P’s.” Prioritization sets the foundation for mission success. Focus on ruthlessly helping your team keep the main thing the main thing. Preparation gives form to mission success. Focus on what you can do today to help your team prepare for tomorrow’s opportunity and reach your full potential. And passion for excellence fuels mission success. Focus on setting high standards and holding yourself to a higher standard, while constantly looking for ways to improve. If you do these three things well, your team will be prepared to shoot for the moon.
To dive deeper on the subject of how to maintain mission focus, check out chapter 3 in my new book, The Substance of Leadership: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team, available September 21st on Amazon. In the meantime, if you want to find out if you are leading your team to consistently perform at a high level, invest five minutes and take the Performance Pressure Test to find out.