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‘Condemned in the court of my own conscience’: Lessons in leadership from NASA’s shuttle disasters

Mark Maier (mmaier@chapman.edu) is the Founding Chair of the Leadership Programs at Chapman University in Orange, California, USA.

Author’s note: Revisiting NASA’s space shuttle disasters

On January 28, 1986, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew members, including America’s first civilian in space, an effervescent schoolteacher from New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe. Repeated warnings by NASA and contractor engineers about the dangers associated with the fragile rubber rocket seals — known as O-ring seals — in the massive twin rocket boosters, particularly at colder temperatures, were downplayed and/or went unheeded, all under unrelenting pressure to meet an accelerating flight schedule. The temperature at liftoff was 15 degrees colder than any previous flight, and the fragile O-ring seals hardened in the cold air and vaporized. It was, as the 1986 Rogers Commission investigating the tragedy concluded, “an accident waiting to happen.”

Seventeen years later, on the morning of February 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia was on its return from space to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida when hot gases began to penetrate the thin aluminum shell of the spacecraft at the same spot where a large piece of dislodged foam had slammed into the underside of the shuttle’s left wing during its ascent 16 days earlier. At 200,000 feet above the earth, the shuttle disintegrated over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard. The calamity had been predicted with eerie precision by NASA engineers in the days immediately following the foam hit. Their requests to keep the astronauts in space long enough to launch a rescue mission and bring them safely home were overruled by shuttle program management, whose overriding concern was to maintain the ambitious flight rate and budget required to complete a key section of the International Space Station “on time.”

Though separated by 17 years, these tragedies were strikingly similar in their institutional origins, and both events could — and should — have been prevented.

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” —Dr. Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and member of the 1986 Rogers Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident[1]

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome: a well-known definition of insanity.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” —George Santayana

Drawing on dozens of seminars and workshops conducted for managers that I led in partnership with two of the principals involved in the Challenger launch decision, Roger Boisjoly and Allan McDonald, it is important to stress that you (like the participants in our sessions) are likely to be simultaneously a leader and a follower in your system, and that the leadership challenges you face in recognizing and resolving the inherent ethical tensions that frequently arise between “maintaining your business” and “doing the right thing” are relevant from both sides of this divide.[2]

Out of the approximately 2,500 professionals whom Boisjoly, McDonald, and I served in these workshops, rarely did any identify with “the power people” (i.e., the positional leaders) in the NASA scenarios we presented. Further, not one single participant in any of these workshops—from entry-, to middle-, to senior-, and even executive-level management—has ever agreed that they prefer misleading or deceptive input from their direct reports or favor the deliberate withholding of critical information caused by the subordinate’s fear that the information would be “unwelcome.” (Think for a moment: How would you respond if someone ever asked you, “Would you like my dishonest opinion?”)

Similarly, the participants have insisted that they would prefer to be told what they need to know instead of what subordinates think they would like to hear. They all agree that wishful thinking does not constitute a viable strategy for success. These hundreds of managers over a 30-year span agree that, ultimately, the only true bad news in a system is the information they don’t hear about, which they are thus unable to confront and correct. So, intuitively, all of these folks identify as leaders who have a duty to be the “hearer” of bad news. And yet…

When the workshop roles are switched and they feel called upon to be the bearers of an inconvenient truth—defined as a truth that is likely (or presumed) to pose an immediate threat to the attainment of an organization’s goals or expressed objectives—a dilemma emerges. When presented with the Challenger and Columbia case studies, nearly all of them are more likely to identify with the subordinates (i.e., the positional followers). Consequently, they struggle with the implications of facing the realities honestly and having the courage to speak truth to power. The typical quandary they bring up is how their system, organization, or superiors make it difficult to stand up and speak the truth as they see it in the face of anticipated resistance or outright rejection from their bosses and/or a major client/customer. Typical rationalizations they use to justify acquiescing to deception or outright lies are: “I had no choice,” “My hands were tied,” “The system made me do it,” “My job (or ‘our contract’) was at stake,” and, “Economics dictated our response.” Even if they are in reality in the highest echelons of their organizations, they instinctively relate to being in a subordinate position, not a supervisory position.

In other words, the ability to recognize and face reality as it is, not as we would like it to be, or to speak the truth can be directly compromised by organizational norms driven by an overriding concern with success, either personal (e.g., advancement) or organizational (i.e., meeting projected/announced goals, keeping costs down, and maximizing the bottom line), which reinforce a rigid respect for the hierarchy and pleasing one’s boss or customer, especially in the short term. Bearers of bad news do not want to risk being seen as not a team player, disloyal, or—at worst—insubordinate and therefore ignored or dismissed.

Another striking result from these seminars is when we introduced the subject matter and asked them, “If you were a decision-maker in the Challenger chronology and could foresee that your decisions would lead to this ultimate outcome (disaster and death), how many of you would make a different choice?” They all raised their hands. They also were quick to criticize the question, saying that we can’t know such an outcome with absolute certainty. Touche!

This is a central point: We can no longer prevent the Challenger and Columbia disasters and the death of 14 crew members. We cannot turn back the clock; what’s done is done. But we can revisit the incidents to recognize the choices made by the real decision-makers that took them over the precipice and—in recognizing those steps and their all-too-familiar origins—commit ourselves to preventing such mistakes in order to avoid “launching a Challenger” in our own careers.

As you will see, Challenger and Columbia serve as virtual proxies or metaphors for organizational processes and managerial practices everywhere. Next to averting the actual tragedies, the best thing we can do to honor the memory of those who perished as a direct result of the deliberate, ill-advised, misinformed, and predictable decisions of our managerial kin is to commit ourselves to replacing the dysfunctional managerial script that condemned them to driving these horrific outcomes with a model that ensures adherence to a different mindset, different processes, and different outcomes. And at the risk of oversimplifying, I will chronicle a few of the more salient lies, fabrications, and deceptions embedded in the history of the shuttle program, focusing on the pivotal and commonplace managerial dynamics and decisions that doomed the Challenger and Columbia missions (see Figure 1*).

The aim of this article is simple: To (1) help you maintain the highest standards of integrity when confronted with ethical dilemmas at work; (2) equip you with the courage to address the truth (or reality); and (3) for those in leadership positions, encourage you to drive the creation of an environment where subordinates can, and will, tell their leaders the truth.

The insights provided here—the culmination of three decades of input from hundreds of managers like yourself—will hopefully challenge and inspire you to prevent the “launching of a Challenger” on your watch in your organization and in your lifetime.

Figure 1: Two tragic failures, Space Shuttles Challenger (left) and Columbia (right)
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