Frank Borman, Astronaut and Leader in tough times

220px-Frank_BormanIn creating new content for the web – educational, corporate, entertainment – we have a bit of a pressure-cooker atmosphere. Teams are quickly assembled. Ideas are tried and tested and implemented in hours and days, and deadlines are often set with everything but technical feasibility in mind. 

Of course, in web, the stakes are rarely as high as those of, say NASA. We can update, beta test, and the consequences are not typically life altering. There is always “CTRL-Z”

Nonetheless, we need good teams – exceptional teams, really – to get the job done.

Looking back over 50 years, one of the most amazing teams, goals, and deadlines was the Apollo program to land a man on the moon by 1969. 0.4% of the Gross Domestic Product of the United States at that time was diverted to NASA, and when the project had started it was science fiction – it would be like us today building nuclear starship in 15 years, just enough feasibility to not be pure science fiction.

But things did go wrong, because of the rush to meet the deadline, and because of the unique nature of risk: nothing goes wrong until things go wrong – the only symptom of high risk is catastrophe.

Early in the program, 3 astronauts were killed, trapped in an oxygen fire on the launchpad, locked in their tiny command module on top of the Saturn 1B rocket, while running routine tests. It was totally unforeseen  because the rocket was unfuelled, they were going nowhere; it was no different than going to your car in the garage to check the odometer.

No one considered the unique 100% oxygen atmosphere in the command module a risk – even though any engineer understood that this sort of atmosphere radically increases the flammability of materials – even some metals burn in this atmosphere. But what started the fire? Why couldn’t the astronauts escape? And why was the potential risk overlooked?

NASA chose to put an Apollo astronaut in charge of the investigation. Frank Borman was tasked to find the root cause, and if necessary point the direction in which to reorganize the entire moon program. But proving you know how to do things better the second time around is just the first step in actually getting up and trying again; he was also chosen as a leader to bring back confidence and morale, and to repair a relationship between management, engineers, and astronauts so that they could succeed.

His role was that of the quintessential Leader. A generalist with very specific interest. One who had to see through the complexity of an organization of a thousand disciplines, and to show how it could pick itself back  up  and give it new confidence despite the reality of the accident. Although not emphasized now, there was a very real possibility that the Apollo program would have ended with this fire.

So what were the traits of this leader? To quote one of the engineers:

“He was a pleasure to work with: he was bold, he was intuitive, he was so aggressive, he was so ‘let’s get the job done’,…it was one of the highlights of my career to work with Frank Borman.”

Let’s break that sentence down:

First, “Bold”:

“not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger or rebuff; courageous and daring”

“beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or action; imaginative”

The entire program was a ‘bold ‘ undertaking by any standard – so ‘conventional’  is really just just another day of getting men to the moon. The danger here was the act of finding unfixable problems in the way things were being done;  not that this specific problem could not be fixed, but that the class of problems could not be found before they revealed themselves. The fear was that even though it was technically possible, it was organizationally improbable to get a man safely to the moon and back. 

When a team of any size meets with a disaster-level setback, it becomes necessary to imagine the success beyond the setback, and that is very hard to do in the days and months immediately after. Humans, like most animals are once bitten, twice shy for survival reasons, and so are their organizations. This is why an attack can collapse into a rout in battle – the momentum rebounds off the unexpected and can be as strong in the reverse direction.

A Bold leader has the task of preventing this – in the short time before the forward momentum turns into confusion and retreat, a bold leader provides the imagination that sees a path forward, and demonstrates that the ‘old rules’ that resulted in disaster are malleable, and that he or she has the will to bend and reshape them.

In short, a bold leader embodies the confidence of its individuals at their best, especially when confidence is at an ebb. Each individual can choose to resonate with that confidence: “if  she is confident and acting while I am hesitant and doubtful, and she is our leader, then she sees a way past the barriers I see.”

So, what about this Action that must come from this Boldness?


“making an all-out effort to win or succeed;”

The bigger an organization, either in terms of people or rules, the greater the inertia, and the harder it is to change the way things are done; it’s the difference between catching a feather and catching a bowling ball. As F=mA says (or, specifically A=F/m), your acceleration (your ability to change direction)  grows as you increase the force you apply, and shrinks as your inertia increases. In other words, rapidly and radically changing the way things are done in a a large organization (and NASA at the time was gigantic) requires huge force – a small push would not put things back on a track that would lead to success.

Aggressiveness has almost a negative connotation within an organization, as it seems to run contrary to the concept of teamwork and forethought. But this is semantics and it applies more to the type of aggressiveness that is self-centered. Look at the opposite term: Passiveness. Doing nothing, accepting the way things are and how they are going to unfold. If aggressiveness seems negative, passiveness is catastrophic.

And this is aggressiveness without leaving the team behind – enlightened aggression is what was demonstrated  by Frank Borman in demonstrating that sufficient will and action could change the way things were done.

Now the last part of what this engineer said:

“He was so ‘Let’s get the job done'”

In other words: results-oriented, but team focussed: “let us get the job done.” Not “me”, not “you”, and not “those of us that didn’t screw up” but us.

Team success has been considered a self fulfilling prophecy in times of crisis. An impossible deadline or inadequate team notwithstanding, a leader can raise performance by raising expectations, often termed as the  Rosenthal or Pygmallion Effect. One NASA engineer said during the time during which Frank Boreman’s recommendations went into effect:

“I felt rededicated, like a warrior, because it meant more than a job – it meant people lives.”

A leader is in charge of team cohesion. In sports psychology this is especially apparent, and coaches must manage “collective efficacy” – the team’s belief that it can or cannot achieve the goal at hand. Henry Ford is quoted to say that “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right”, and a leader has the task of determining which side of this balance you and your team tilt towards, because a small tilt in one direction is self-reinforcing; confidence builds confidence, and doubt breeds doubt.

By selecting an Astronaut, not an engineer, to head the investigation, NASA reinforced the concept that it was a team working together – not engineers sending astronauts to the moon, and not astronauts blind-betting their lives on clever engineering.

This was to be a cohesive team, and by working to ‘get the job done’ and sidestepping concepts of blame, of cliques and of disciplines, the team is best able to see the goal and believe again that they can get there. When the guy next to you say ‘we can’, you might think so to, and there is another gal standing next to you, too. Ways of working are contagious and patient zero is the team leader.


So what is leadership? It is partly teaching, I believe. It is making your students (your team) confident that they can learn to do what they need to. It is showing that there is a way past doubt and past indecision, and that the ultimate goal is achievable and even inevitable. In practice, it is sweeping aside practical difficulties of a large organization’s inertia. In practice it is leaving no team member behind if they are willing and able to contribute. In practice it is being an example of any given team member’s best character, so they can model their next action, or thought after something positive and forward looking.

The result is more creativity, better solutions, and in the end,  delivered results.

The ultimate project? Check out Moon machines

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