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“Houston, We Have a Problem” – Timeless Lessons in Leadership and the Use of Power

Plato opined, The measure of a man is what he does with power[1].  Truer words could not be more relevant when assessing today’s organizational leaders. 

Is it time for a workplace-power reset? 

With so much at stake, let us examine the integral role human-capital management (HCM) leaders can play in assessing and, potentially, helping to re-set how workplace power is leveraged.  To do this, let us examine a page from history.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

More than fifty years ago, those chilling words were first uttered by Apollo 13 Command Module Pilot John L. “Jack” Swigert following a dull bang he and his fellow astronauts heard while traveling more than 200,000 miles above the Earth.  Soon, the spacecraft would be crippled and their lives endangered. 

Grace under pressure

What ensued in the next four days was nothing less than a miracle.  It was a testament to the astronauts’ human spirit and the collective power and singular focus of the countless individuals who worked 24/7 to make possible the crew’s safe return.  And it was not just the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees in the United States who worked tirelessly toward this end.  The unprecedented rescue efforts drew contributions from scientists and others from around the globe.

Mission accomplished.

Miraculously, all three crew members returned safely to Earth.  As the American space craft and its crew splashed down, ships from the former Soviet Union were there and ready to assist.  Other countries, including France, Uruguay, and Burundi, also offered their resources[2].  The stakes were too high for the Americans to think or rely upon the notion that they, alone, had the power to solve this. 

Meanwhile, back on Earth

Now, more than fifty years later and after navigating through a global pandemic, organizational and HCM leaders can learn much from the 1970 Apollo 13 space mission.

Unquestionably, the past sixteen months have tested organizations in unprecedented ways.  Many individuals lost their jobs.  Others were mandated to continue working in person if they wanted to keep their jobs.  Still others were thrust almost overnight into a remote-work landscape for which many were unprepared and/or ill equipped to navigate.  And some employees had to walk away “voluntarily” so they could attend to child- and/or elder-care needs that were exacerbated during the pandemic.  Concurrently, people were understandably fearful about Covid and whether they or their loved ones might be afflicted.  Nonetheless, the organizations that survived the pandemic did so, in large measure, through the collective efforts of all employees.  And this recognition holds a unique and well-timed opportunity on which HCM leaders can capitalize.

Power distribution and use 

To Plato’s point, there can be great strength that emanates from how and whether one’s power is used.  Sometimes less truly is more. 

Even before the pandemic, one could argue that hierarchal power alone was no longer sufficient to drive organizational success.  Generally, younger generations of employees sought more equitable power distribution within the workplace.

Below are some conversation starters HCM leaders can use as they assess existing power use and the potential opportunities for a power re-set:

  • Are employee ideas and suggestions to better achieve business goals being solicited?
  • In what ways might greater diversity of thought be solicited?
  • How are organizational leaders sharing critical business information with all employees and how might these conversations be expanded?
  • Are employees who contribute to business efficiencies, ethical operations, legal compliance, fiscal responsibility, product/service ideas, etc. being recognized and rewarded?
  • In what ways are organizational leaders engaging with union leaders? 
  • What can be done to achieve stronger collaborative labor-management relationships?
  • How are managers and other leaders engaging with their respective teams?
  • In what ways are teams empowered to collaborate with peers across the organization?
  • Is the full power of the performance-management system being leveraged for everyone’s developmental benefit?
  • Are there practices/procedures that drive an equitable distribution and availability of resources across the organization? 
  • How might greater resource access be achieved?
  • In what ways are organizational leaders “walking the talk” around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging? 
  • What can leaders do better to empower employees to achieve business goals?

So, the next time you look at the moon, what new frontiers will you see?

When leaders resist the unilateral use of their positional power in favor of harnessing everyone’s input, insights and talent, the sky is the limit.  When HCM leaders ask key questions and lead related business conversations, the organizational benefits that can accrue are as endless as the universe that stretches well beyond the moon.  HCM leaders, prepare for takeoff!


[1] Plato Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved June 24, 2021, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/plato_377565

[2] The Mars Generation.  Retrieved June 24, 2021, from https://www.themarsgeneration.org/how-creativity-saved-the-crew-of-apollo-13/

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.

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