Jan. 28 marked the 30th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, which cost the lives of seven crew members. The media let the anniversary pass with only minor mention. The further removed we are from historic events, the more they recede from our consciousness. However, historic events teach us valuable lessons that are timeless, and we shouldn’t forget them as they fade into the past.
The Challenger anniversary reminded me of one of the most important lessons for all leaders – the need to surround themselves with independent thinkers who will point out the brutal facts of reality. Leaders need to create an environment and institutional culture that welcomes and encourages individuals to share their opinions and then consider them, especially if those offering these opinions have more experience or expertise than the leader.
On Aug. 31, 2015, I published an article where I wrote about the Challenger disaster headlined, “How an independent thinker unearths brutal facts of reality.” In that article, I said 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 out that reality. Portions of that Aug. 31 article appear in this article.
The Challenger was launched on Jan. 28, 1986 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. 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.
NASA however, objected to Thiokol’s 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 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.
On Jan. 29, Howard Berkes wrote an article for the NPR publication “The Two-Way,” headlined, “30 years after explosion, Challenger Engineer still blames himself.” For his article, Berkes interviewed Morton Thiokol engineer Bob Ebeling, who told the story of how he and four other engineers did not want the Challenger to be launched due to cold weather conditions. In spite of their concern, NASA launched the shuttle.
Quoting Berkes’ article, “When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, Ebeling [and his colleagues] … knew exactly what had happened. Three weeks later, Ebeling and another engineer separately and anonymously detailed to NPR the first account of that contentious pre-launch meeting. Both were despondent and in tears as they described hours of data review and arguments. The data showed that the rubber seals on the shuttle’s booster rockets wouldn’t seal properly in cold temperatures and this would be the coldest launch ever.
“‘I was one of the few that was really close to the situation,’ Ebeling recalls. ‘Had they listened to me and wait[ed] for a weather change, it might have bene a completely different outcome. … [NASA] had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.’”
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, was at odds with Commission chairman Rogers on many issues during the investigation. When Feynman learned that the final Commission report would not focus on the issues he felt were key to the loss of the shuttle – lack of communication, an 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 within NASA might not have been identified.
Leaders need to ensure that the brutal facts of reality are acknowledged. 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.
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.
About the author
Stan Silverman is a speaker, writer and advisor who focuses on helping businesses and organizations cultivate leadership cultures. He currently is a Leadership Catalyst for Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Stan is also Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Drexel University, a lead director on the board of Drummond Scientific and and serves on the board of Ben Franklin Technology Partners. He is the former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Stan can be reached by email or at his website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com.