Leadership Lessons from a mission of “Successful Failure.”

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By Priscilla J. Quiah, reviewed by Audrey Weil and Lila Ojha

Apollo 13 is a film based on the accounts of events of the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo Space program and the third intended to land on the moon. The film, directed by Ron Howard and released in the year 1995,  is based on the nonfiction book, “The Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13,” first published in 1994 by astronaut James Lovell and journalist Jeffrey Kluger.

This captivating film chronicle the dramatic turn of events of when Apollo 13 became known as a successful failure, meaning that it didn’t make it to the moon, but the astronauts came home safely.

The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, at 1:13 from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the Service Module,( SM), upon which the Command Module, (CM), depended.

So in the face of great hardship and a life threatening situation caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, the need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, and the critical need to stay alive and return to the earth; everyone involved including: the prime crew, backup crew, support crew, flight directors among others, had to apply considerable ingenuity under extreme pressure to return the crew safely to earth.

Everyone involved demonstrated the importance of teamwork and showed remarkable ingenuity, which led to the successful safe return to earth of the crew; that captivated us as leaders.


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As indicated in our presentation: the general lessons we took away from the film as team players are:

  • Continuing through adversity and unforeseen changes,
  • Determination, always keeping the goal in mind,
  • Communication is everything,
  • Clear division of jobs or roles among team members,
  • Positive attitude,
  • Confidence in decision-making,
  • Trust,
  • And supporting each other among other things.

Some other great leadership characteristics demonstrated by the crew leader James Lovell are:

  • Compassion; he demonstrated this when he was faced with the difficult situation to tell his first team members that they were not on for the mission – it was almost like firing an employee you would rather not.
  • Adaptability; his ability to begin to quickly learn the moves, tones, response method and rhythm of a new set of team members, and flow with them on the mission, was great.
  • Courage; he was prepared to take risk, he exhibited courage to go ahead with the mission even though he seemed to hold some doubts of adequately flowing or blending into the rhythm of his new partners.
  • Influence; faced with a mission that required such high level of cooperation and coordination, and considering that they had not work together in preparation for this mission, before the mission, his ability to get the new team members to cooperate with him including those behind the scene was remarkable.
  • Emotional Intelligence, calm, maturity, composure; the leader was calm, refused to indulge in pity party and apportion blames in the face of the wrong turn of events, instead, he remained positively engaged with everyone for innovative and creative solutions.
  • Great Communicator; he listened to others.
  • Generous and kind; he complimented his team members.
  • Genuine / vulnerability; he was human, expressed his frustration through an unexpected outburst before the others, yet calmly continued with the main goal at the time, which was returning to the earth safely. He was also afraid, which showed his humanness, yet as a leader, he couldn’t allow the others to see his fear of not being able to see his wife and children anymore, so he demonstrated bravery and alertness in their presence, but will become pensive when alone.

4 Comments on “Leadership Lessons from a mission of “Successful Failure.””

  1. You did a great job in building a collection of leadership qualities from this movie. I think such a mission requires the best out of best leaders. Good choice!

  2. Thanks Vlad! You and Tamara also open my eyes to leadership lessons from the American Sniper, lessons that i would not have ordinarily consider, and would have rather just been entertain by the action. The exercise was educative.

  3. Hi Priscilla!

    I liked that you chose a movie that specifically focuses on failure in a positive light. Most people get discouraged and give up when things don’t go right, but Apollo 13 highlights how failure can be successful.

  4. I love Apollo 13! I think it was a great movie to pull leadership lessons from because during this trying time they all had to come together and solve a major problem that was life or death.

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