How an independent thinker unearths brutal facts of reality

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on September 1, 2015

A major cause of failure of initiatives, sometimes with catastrophic consequences, is the inability of CEOs, their leadership team or a company’s board to face the brutal facts of their reality, and the lack of a courageous independent thinker who will point that reality out. In the past I would have referred to this individual as a lone wolf, but unfortunately, world events have co-opted that label.

How many times have you wondered what drives the senior management of your company to make the decisions they do? How often have you sat in a meeting talking about an issue, and wonder why no one wants to discuss the elephant in the room – the one factor that could spell the difference between success and failure, but for some reason, the subject is off-limits? Perhaps you are that independent thinker who speaks up, and puts the issue squarely on the table to face the brutal facts of reality.

One of the best examples of a failure to face the brutal facts of reality was NASA’s Jan. 28, 1986 decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger in cold weather, which caused the O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster to fail 73 seconds after launch, resulting in the escape of burning fuel that destroyed the shuttle. Five astronauts lost their lives, including public school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

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 recommended that the launch be postponed, a recommendation supported by Thiokol management.

NASA however, objected to Thiokol’s recommendation to delay the launch. The launch of the Challenger 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 is quoted as saying, “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.

President Ronald Reagan established the Rogers Commission (named for its chairman William P. Rogers) to investigate the reasons for the Challenger disaster. The Commission found that NASA, concerned about their inability to meet an unrealistic launch schedule that might jeopardize their Congressional funding, did not face the brutal facts of their reality – launching in cold weather conditions exposed the Challenger to an unacceptable high level of risk.

One member of the Commission, physicist Richard Feynman, clearly saw that two issues within NASA were lack of communication and an understanding of risk. Through his own work independent of the Commission, Feynman learned that NASA management felt that the likelihood of shuttle failure was one in 100,000, compared with NASA engineers, who felt that the likelihood of failure was one in 100. Feynman was the independent thinker on the Commission, wanting to probe an organizational culture in which there was such a large disconnect between management and their technical experts.

Feynman was at odds with Commission chairman Rogers on many issues during the investigation, and when he learned that the final Commission report would not focus on the issues he felt were key to the loss of the shuttle, he decided to write a minority report. If it wasn’t for Feynman, these issues within NASA might not have been identified and addressed.

So, how do organizations ensure that the brutal facts of their reality get addressed? It takes the leadership of the CEO to nurture an environment and organizational culture in which this occurs, where those who have a seat at the table feel that their views are listened to and are welcome, even if they go against conventional wisdom.

Once reality is acknowledged, 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.

On occasion, a courageous independent thinker needs to 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 a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership. He is the Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Website:

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