Article originally posted in and nationally syndicated by the American City Business Journals on January 23, 2018.
Sunday, Jan. 28, marks the 32nd anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. On that date in 1986, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff due to a leak in one of the O-rings of the solid rocket booster, resulting in the death of all seven crew members and the loss of the shuttle.
On this occasion, I would like to look back to an article I wrote two years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, that emphasizes the importance for all leaders of surrounding themselves with and listening to independent thinkers who will help them face the brutal facts of reality.
The engineers at Morton Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the design of the solid rocket boosters, were concerned about the cold temperature on launch day and the effect the cold would have on the solid rocket booster O-rings. The O-rings were designed to operate at an ambient temperature of not less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
On the day of the launch, the ambient temperature was 30 degrees. Concerned about the brittleness of the O-rings, Thiokol told NASA that the launch needed to be postponed.
NASA objected to the recommendation to delay the launch. The launch had already been delayed a number of times for various reasons. One NASA manager is quoted as saying, “I am appalled by your recommendation.” Another NASA manager said, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch – next April?”
NASA made unrealistic launch frequency commitments to Congress to secure increased funding for the space program. Thiokol management, facing pressure from NASA, eventually acquiesced and agreed that the launch could proceed. The rest is history. The United States lost the Challenger and its crew due to the catastrophic failure of an O-ring.
On January 28, 2016, columnist Howard Berkes wrote an article for the NPR publication “The Two-Way” headlined “30 years after explosion, Challenger engineer still blames himself.” For his article, Berkes interviewed Morton Thiokol engineer Robert Ebeling, who told the story of how he and four other engineers did not want the Challenger to be launched due to cold weather conditions. In spite of their concern, NASA launched the shuttle anyway.
Ebeling told Berkes, “‘I was one of the few that was really close to the situation. Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have been a completely different outcome. … [NASA] had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.’”
For the remainder of his life, Ebeling blamed himself for not being able to convince NASA to delay the Challenger launch. I had the privilege of speaking with Ebeling shortly after the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I told him that he and the other Thiokol engineers who warned against the launch were American heroes. Ebling passed away two weeks after my conversation with him.
Many times, a decision will come down to assessing the risks of various courses of action. When the possible result of a course of action is catastrophic even if the probability of it occurring is low, one should not take the risk. Unfortunately, the NASA decision makers who moved ahead with the Challenger launch did not think in these terms. They were more worried about their unrealistic launch schedule commitment to Congress.
Leaders need to create an environment and institutional culture that welcomes and encourages individuals to share their opinions. A courageous independent thinker should voice their opinion and try to convince everyone of the validity of the organization’s reality. The views of the independent thinker may not be ultimately adopted, but at a minimum, those views provide a different path, a path against which the majority opinion can be tested and either confirmed or changed. Under this type of process, the best decisions will emerge.
In the words of renowned Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: Never lie to yourself.” Leaders: Remember this when one of the independent thinkers on your staff reminds you to face the brutal facts of your reality.Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.