Tag Archives: success and failure


Ed Harris as Gene Kranz 1by Tom Lemanski

From the SMART Leadership Archives

With the aid of the film, Apollo 13, let’s briefly consider the concept of failure and its role in innovation, problem solving and decision-making.

The Apollo 13 movie documents the heroic efforts of the NASA flight team in successfully returning their crew of three astronauts to earth in their ill-fated, aborted, mission to land on the moon. There’s a compelling scene where the flight engineers discuss the crippled space craft’s desperate power situation that concludes with Flight Director Gene Kranz’s (portrayed by Ed Harris as pictured at left) determined declaration:

“Failure is not an option.”

Movie Clip

(If the movie clip FAILS to come up, try, try again.)

Failure Phobia

These inspiring words of determination are all-too-often misconstrued by risk-averse leaders who embrace the belief that any form of failure is unacceptable. If you remember the rest of the film, you know that the successful solution to the space craft power crisis was solved by numerous trial and error experiments. Most of them failed to provide enough power reduction to save the crew. With each frustrating failure, the team gained insight that led to successful solutions.

In reality, when failure is not an option, the surest route to success is through failure and the resulting innovation that only evolves when we…

Try > Fail > Learn > Adapt > Innovate

And as the instructions on shampoo bottles used to say about lathering and rinsing: “Repeat as necessary“.


Culture Check

If we can agree that innovation is critical to success and acknowledge that failures are a critical components for success, allow me to ask:

How does your organization reward failures?

Or do you harbor a risk-averse culture that discourages venturesome, entrepreneurial activities? When was the last time you acknowledged a staff or team member for their willingness to try and fail? What did everyone gain?


Too Much of a Bad Thing?

As leaders we need to develop a tolerance for those who try and fail. We also need to manage our scarce resources. An overabundance of failures that fail to generate results isn’t the answer either. So in the pursuit of balance, there’s another lesson in failure from the Apollo 13 story. It’s the need to fail fast. Gene Kranz’s team of engineers had a tiny window of time for experimentation and that was clearly communicated to them.


Leadership Challenges

Here are some suggestions for some ways for you to fail responsibly:

  • Find innovative ways to eliminate the fear of failure that results in creating a risk-averse culture
  • Drive innovation by seeking new ways to harvest knowledge that results from ill-fated trials
  • Find new ways to promote efficient failures. Like the NASA engineers in the movie, develop an awareness of the need to fail fast. Their fast failures led to their ultimate success.

How do you do these? I recommend that you try new approaches that fit your situation. Be prepared to fail, learn and adapt. Then innovate like your mission depends on it. And remember that fear of failure is not an option.


The Film’s Failure Footnote:

While actor Ed Harris delivered the passionate now famous line “Failure is not an option“, Gene Kranz did not. It’s a screen writer’s creation. That didn’t stop Mr. Kranz from borrowing it for the title of his autobiography. And why not? His leadership and determined attitude led to an epic, film-worthy, real life success story.


Smart Leadership by Tom Lemanski

Tom Lemanski serves as an executive coach and trusted advisor to successful Chicago area executives who are driven to be more successful.

Find him at http://chicagoexecutivecoaching.com/

His column, “SMART Leadership” appears at http://chicagoexecutivecoaching.com/smartleadership/


Chicago Venture Magazine is a publication of Nathaniel Press www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link . This is not investment advice. We do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not our fault if you lose money.

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