Article originally published by the Philadelphia Business Journals on January 25, 2021.
Thursday, Jan. 28 marks the 35th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Because this event teaches so many fundamental, timeless and important leadership lessons and to honor the Challenger’s crew, each year on the event’s anniversary, I write about these lessons.
On Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The outside air temperature on launch day was 38 degrees Fahrenheit. The O-rings on the solid rocket boosters were designed for a temperature of at least 53 degrees. The low temperature risked the loss of resilience in the O-rings, causing them to change from pliable to brittle, resulting in the possibility of fuel leakage and an explosion. Ignoring the risk, NASA launched Challenger, which resulted in the loss of the shuttle and seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.
So, what are the lessons taught by the Challenger disaster?
Listen to your experts.
Worried about the temperature on launch day, the Morton-Thiokol engineers who designed the O-rings told NASA that the launch needed to be postponed. The NASA management team didn’t listen.
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?” Thiokol management, facing significant pressure from NASA, eventually acquiesced and agreed that the launch could proceed, with disastrous consequences.
The 2020 Netflix documentary, “Challenger: The Final Flight” describes the culture at NASA as one of a “we can achieve anything” arrogant confidence. NASA had made unrealistic launch frequency commitments to Congress in order to secure increased funding for the space program. The frequency of shuttle launches was less than what was promised to Congress. This drove the decision to ignore the experts – the Thiokol engineers – and launch Challenger in cold weather conditions.
Many times a decision will come down to assessing the risk of various courses of action. When the risk of a course of action is low but the possible result is catastrophic, one should not take the risk. Unfortunately, the NASA decision makers who moved ahead with the Challenger launch did not think in these terms.
Establish an open culture.
In his book, “The Challenge Culture: Why Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback,” former chairman and CEO of Dunkin Brands Group Nigel Travis writes about the importance of establishing a challenge culture within organizations in which input from employees is welcomed by their leaders. This was not the culture that existed within NASA.
Travis writes that a challenge culture is one “in which direct reports can challenge their bosses … and colleagues can challenge each other… [so that] people have a say, where people understand what’s going on. The results are great business solutions and total buy-in because people feel involved [and respected].”
Of course, that culture needs to focus on attacking business issues and not people, so that challenging others doesn’t destroy working relationships. Respecting civil discourse is a key determinant for success in a challenge culture.
Working in a challenge culture requires individuals with the self-confidence to hear criticism of their ideas and not take it personally, and to have the ability to challenge others. Leaders should create an environment and an institutional culture that welcomes and encourages individuals to share their opinions without intimidation.
Value the lone wolf. They point out the brutal facts of reality.
President Ronald Reagan established the Rogers Commission (named for its chairman William P. Rogers) to investigate the reasons for the Challenger disaster.
One member of the Commission, physicist Richard Feynman, was at odds with Commission chairman Rogers on many issues during the investigation. Feynman learned that the final Commission report would not focus on the brutal facts of reality he felt were key to the loss of the shuttle – lack of communication, a lack of understanding of risk and a rigid culture that did not encourage sharing of contrary views. He decided to write a minority report. If it wasn’t for Feynman, these issues would not have surfaced.
A courageous independent thinker needs to voice their opinion and try to help everyone acknowledge the brutal facts of the organization’s reality. The views of the independent thinker may not be ultimately adopted, but those views provide a different path, a path against which the opinion of the decision maker 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 to listen to your experts, establish an open culture and value the lone wolf within your organization.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.