The space shuttle Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 28, 1986.

Don’t Forge Ahead If Meeting an Important Commitment Could Have Adverse Consequences

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on January 29, 2019

Monday, Jan. 28, marked the 33rd 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. 

I have written about two valuable lessons taught by the Challenger tragedy – the importance for leaders to listen to their experts, and for leaders to face the brutal facts of reality. Now I want to share another lesson of the Challenger tragedy – don’t forge ahead to meet an important commitment when doing so could have adverse consequences. In the case of the Challenger, disastrous consequences.

NASA had made unrealistic launch frequency commitments to Congress in order to secure increased funding for the space program. On that day in January 1986, rather than face the brutal facts of reality – cold weather conditions – NASA ignored its experts and launched Challenger.

The engineers at Morton Thiokol, the contractor responsible for the design of the solid rocket boosters, were concerned about the effect the cold would have on the solid rocket booster O-rings. The O-rings were designed by these engineers to operate at an ambient temperature of no less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the day of the launch, the ambient temperature was 30 degrees. Worried about the brittleness of the O-rings, Thiokol told NASA that the launch needed to be postponed.

NASA ignored the risk of an O-ring failure and 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?

Thiokol management, facing pressure from NASA, eventually acquiesced and agreed that the launch could proceed. The rest is history: an O-ring failure caused the loss of Challenger and its crew.

What drives leaders to meet their commitments, a natural characteristic of all leaders, even though doing so may mean experiencing adverse consequences? They want to maintain their credibility with those who have power over them, to whom they have made commitments, regardless of the inadvisability of meeting those commitments.

In the case of NASA and the decision to launch the Challenger, the space agency wanted to meet its commitment to Congress who provided funding for the nation’s space program. For CEOs, it’s their board of directors, who can terminate them for not meeting their commitments, or their shareholders, who if dissatisfied with the financial performance of the company, can drive down the company’s stock price. In the case of politicians, it’s the voters who can toss them out of office at the next election for not meeting the commitments made while campaigning for office.

A case in point is President Donald Trump’s surprise statement on Dec. 19, announcing the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, fulfilling a campaign promise to do so.

All three lessons taught by the Challenger tragedy were ignored by Trump: the importance for leaders to listen to their experts; for leaders to face the brutal facts of reality; and to never try to fulfill a commitment when there is high risk of an adverse outcome.

A Dec. 24 article in Newsweek by Tom O’Connor is headlined, “Donald Trump is keeping promise to withdraw from Syria so he can win the 2020 election, experts say.” Fulfilling that campaign promise is more important to Trump than meeting obligations to our allies and partners in the region.

James Mattis, a knowledgeable and highly respected retired Marine Corps general, resigned from his position as Secretary of Defense on the day Trump made the troop withdrawal announcement. He did so because he disagreed with Trump’s withdrawal decision, and other policy decisions made by Trump.

An article from The Washington Post on Dec. 19 by Karen DeYoung is headlined, “Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria startles aides and allies.” Trump did not ask for the input of his military advisors, nor pre-advise our allies of his decision.

At a press conference on Dec. 20, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a supporter of most all of Trump’s initiatives, said, “There are a lot of broken hearts of Americans, who have looked our allies in the eyes [and] who have said, we are going to stick with you.” Their statements to our allies were undermined by Trump’s announcement to withdraw.

Graham continued, “As to the decision by the president, I don’t know where it came from, but it needs to be reconsidered. Ambassador [James] Jeffrey, our special envoy to Syria, just two days ago announced a commitment to stay until we got this right. I don’t know how this decision was made, it came out of left field, it rattled the world.” Trump’s surprise announcement undermined Jeffery’s credibility with our allies and partners in the Middle East.

Especially vulnerable are the Kurds, who have fought valiantly to further U.S. interests. Without a U.S. military presence in the region, they risk attack from Turkey. Trump threatened to devastate the economy of Turkey if they attacked the Kurds. You don’t say this to an ally.

Trump has now agreed to withdraw U.S. troops over a longer period of time. Leaders who need to walk back their intended actions undermine whatever trust and confidence their supporters have in them.

Business and political leaders, remember these three lessons: listen to your experts before making a decision; face the brutal facts of reality; and never fulfill a commitment when there’s a high risk of an adverse outcome. It’s a strength to admit to your board or your political base that the current situation has caused you to change your mind and not fulfill a commitment that no longer makes sense in the current environment. It is a weakness to proceed as originally planned and possibly suffer a disastrous consequence.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership, and is the former CEO of PQ Corporation. 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 Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

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