Someday, you will be called to lead. Whether it be a team, a volunteer group, or coworkers, you can improve leadership skills to become the hero of the day. And if you are never in charge of a group, you are constantly leading your lesser-self towards a better life.
“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”
There’s no better way to improve leadership skills than from personal experience, failure, and eventually success. The second best way is to learn from the experience of others. That’s why we’ve summarized these three incredible stories from leaders who encountered some of the world’s toughest problems.
A sincere thank you to “The Leadership Moment: Nine Strategies of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All” by Michael Useem, These leadership excerpts come from this spectacular book by the director of the Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management. We strongly recommend you pick up a copy of this book, where you’ll find even more incredible stories and lessons you can’t find anywhere else.
As you read through these summaries and the lessons we can learn, challenge yourself. Ask yourself the tough questions, like:
+ What would I have done?
+ How could I learn to do better?
+ Where could I get similar experience?
+ How does this apply to me now?
It’s essential to put in your best effort, but we all know that sometimes it just isn’t enough. And at the end of the day, if you want to help change the world for the better, the only thing that matters is your results. Always work hard, but don’t let yourself relax because you “made an effort”.
An interesting by-product of the “participation trophy” is both children and adults adopting the “just try your best, winning doesn’t matter” mentality. That helps no one. You have to learn to lose, and you have to learn how to win.
People can find comfort inside their own heads, reassuring themselves with their great plans for the future. We need more boots on the ground. Every one of us can create real-world change, and win at something. That’s where true confidence comes from: read books to children, pick up your community, raise money for a non-profit, or just develop your skills and test them against others.
Let’s move onto these incredible stories.
1. SUCCESS: THE RETURN OF APOLLO 13
On April 13, 1970, astronaut James Lovell spoke the now-famous phrase to NASA: “Houston, we have a problem.” An on-board explosion had ripped apart valuable electronics and destroying both an oxygen tank and multiple fuel cells. The problem was clear: These men will not survive the trip back home in the current state.
Eugene Kranz, the Apollo 13 flight director, sprang into action. He had to make many life-threatening decisions over the next 72 hours, and he never lost sight of the goal. “We don’t concede failure,” he said. “We will never surrender. This crew is coming home.”
Kranz removed the crew currently managing Flight Control and brought in his best team. He separated them into groups and told them to work together; every problem was being worked on constantly, and every person knew the status of the other challenges. He even brought in an engineer who was notorious for being frustrating to work with, but he was the absolute best in his field.
As Apollo got closer to home, the astronauts were given a variety of difficult tasks, such as living in the lunar lander for two days to conserve oxygen. All the instructions were given from Ground Control, with a huge delay between sending and receiving. Talk about stress.
Apollo re-entered the atmosphere, and Houston asked for a status update. Four seemingly-endless minutes went by until a crackling voice came through the other end: “OK.” Moments later the three astronauts were floating down by parachute into the pacific.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
Eugene was grilled in meetings and press conferences long after the incident. He gave us insight into his thought process, and the key factors he knew made a difference in this mission.
A) No matter what happens, the leader has to stay cool. “Cooler than cool. You have to be smarter than smart,” said Kranz. If you’re in a big-or-small leadership position, stay focused, constructive, and firm in all of your actions. Take on these positions when you have the experience to back it up, and this will go much more smoothly for you.
B) Construct or join excellent teams that know how to work together and are given permission to make decisions without constant approval. Do this way before an emergency strikes.
C) In periods of anxiety and stress, less-experienced people will reach the panic zone first. Panic zones aren’t just relevant to disasters. Public speaking, bar confrontations, or running a meeting can all induce panic. Practice and train the skills you need in your current challenges over and over again until they are completely memorized.
2. FAILURE: THE MANN GULCH DISASTER
Wagner Dodge was the crew chief of 15 firefighters in rugged Montana, 1949. He had nine years of experience, while his team had been fighting fires all summer and kept themselves in good condition. This was the first time the crew would fight a fire together.
They landed in Mann Gulch at 5:00 PM.
By 6:00 PM, 12 of Dodge’s men were dead.
It’s easy to imagine what had happened if you’ve ever seen the destruction of a wildfire, moving faster than you can run. They crew had a plan to escape through the river if the fire overtook them, but that escape route was cut off by flames before they even reached it.
During the course of the mission, the firefighters split up, Dodge went back to the landing zone for for a bit, and he reversed the men’s escape route without a word.
At 5:55, the entire area was engulfed with flames. All that was left was a prairie at the top of a mountain, and it was quickly burning away. While two of Dodge’s men found a rocky cliffside to avoid the fire, many of them were stuck running from the nightmare.
Dodge had a brilliant idea, just minutes before the wildfire reached him. He started a fire of his own. In a few seconds, his fire had created a rough circle of burnt grass where Dodge laid face down. As the wildfire raged past him, he was able to avoid serious injury. His previous fire had used up all the fuel in the area, and the quick-moving blaze circled around him.
Unfortunately for the rest of his men, they didn’t understand the plan. It seemed like lunacy to run into another fire set by your boss, so they tried to beat the approaching firewall. They were not successful.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
Warner Dodge was a good man, and respected as a leader by his crew. But he made a few crucial mistakes that cost the lives of 12 brave firefighters.
A) Communication is key, even more so as a leader. Your team doesn’t not know what you are thinking, and the more buy-in you need, the more time you should spend explaining your decision. Even though Dodge’s escape plan was brilliant, he failed to communicate it to his men. Even if you are making a small decision for a group, like where to eat that night, explain your choice and communicate the plan.
B) When you make several problematic decisions in a row, it is natural for your leadership to be challenged. Dodge’s men no longer trusted him by the time he tried to save their lives. In your life, prepare to be challenged by other problem-solvers. Take this as a personal challenge of growth. Be firm and continue to explain yourself. Address the poor-outcomes without apologizing for your decisions that were made with the best intentions.
C) Get to know the individuals you work with, and don’t ignore the power of team-building exercises. This was the first jump these men did together, and even though they all had excellent personal experience, they had no idea what working together would mean.
3. CHAOS: ASCENDING ANNAPURNA
Annapurna is one of the highest mountains in the Himalayas, reaching 27,000 feet towards the sky. In October, 1978, Arlene Bloom was on a mission to bring the first crew of women mountaineers to the summit. Our story starts just 800 feet below the peak, where Arlene is forced to make a decision between risking avalanches and icy paths for her team’s cultural immortality and personal achievement, or to turn back and make sure her entire crew comes back safe. What would you do?
In most expeditions, only a few climbers reach the summit, while the sherpas and other members of the team stay at the camp just below. During this trek, Arlene was confronted with a full team of nine members who all wanted to plant their feet at the top.
In the climb, there were moments of despair as well as overconfidence. At late night team meetings, Arlene would hear comments such as, “I feel like we’ve done everything right except pick the right peak” and “I think the climbing plan was made undemocratically, and should be changed so that everybody gets a chance to lead.”
The day after the first team had successfully reached the summit, the two climbers Alison Chadwick and Vera Watson insisted on one last trek upward. The sherpas did not agree with this, and would not accompany them. Bloom announced this second team would also make the attempt, and Chadwick was especially optimistic. This group insisted on trying for a second, untouched subsidiary summit still above 26,000 feet.
Three days went by after Chadwick and Watson left camp, with Bloom trying radio communication every night. Finally, Chadwick’s red jacket was spotted over 1,000 feet below the path. A single mistake on an icy slope means disaster, and these two hikers tested fate. They had fallen to their death.
Even though Bloom successfully lead the rest of her team down safely, she was internally tortured: “I kept wanting to play the record backward—to change the summit teams, the lead climbers, the mountain; to change ever having wanted to climb an eight-thousand meter peak. But the record would not reverse.”
WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
A) In times of trial and suffering, leadership based on collaboration won’t work. Command and control is needed, and even if the team goes to bed angry with you, that’s not the point. Your job is safety and success, not friendship. Bloom said, “I didn’t yet sound like an army general, but I was moving in that direction. The trick is to move just far enough.”
B) Recognize your team members motives for participating. Create an opportunity for everyone to succeed with their personal goals. Some might think the summit was the goal, but if they looked deeper they would realize they just wanted to break their own personal records, find inner strength, and prove to others they could do it. You can help your team achieve this together without everyone having to cross the finish line.
C) When a project is still in progress, it is easy to become overly optimistic. As a leader, you sometimes must dampen the enthusiasm and move your team’s focus off the end result. This ensures that energy is still poured into the actual work. Make your team’s goal appear just out of reach, and everyone will push harder than ever.
Leadership is not a walk in the park. In athletics, business, war, community, and family, strength and vision is needed. The leaders may change, but the principles stay the same.
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