Self-Delusion Saves Lives
Listening to Gene Kranz talk about how he led the ground effort to bring the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft and its crew safely home, I had one of those cross-connection moments where a fact on one side of my mind suddenly snaps some other fact into focus. One of the things Kranz did with his team was to sit down and tell them they had to believe the crew was coming home alive. This morphed into the famous line that became the title of Gene's memoir, Failure Is Not an Option.
That's good leadership, but it may also be good science. I had just heard days before about a series of studies on people who lie themselves into being more successful in life. It turns out you can test how readily someone will make a small lie about themselves by having them answer a series of embarrassing and deeply personal questions. People who score high as small-time liars also tend to be more successful in business, report less depression and even make better athletes. They gave the test to the Duke swim team before a season began and saw that the liars swam faster. That's a pretty objective measure, how fast someone swims.
To be clear, we're not talking about head-in-the-sand, everything-will-be-OK self-delusion. This is self-delusion that inspires action. The athlete must believe they will win to even have a chance. Kranz and colleagues had to believe they would be successful to even attempt to face the daily list of new catastrophes (battery C is dying; they don't have enough oxygen; the capsule is too hot on the sun side and too cold on the dark side; there's a typhoon building at the landing site; the spacecraft is going to miss the earth). And we have to believe we will put the aircraft down on the pavement if we're actually doing a deadstick approach. (Or maybe even believe there is an economically-viable no-lead avgas if we're ever going to get serious about certifying one.)
The other aspect of Kranz's talk that intrigued me was how good leadership is just the right blend of logic and gut instinct. A good leader has the uncanny skill to follow suggestions of others sometimes and reject them other times; a good leader can pick just the right priority out of the eight emergencies screaming for attention. I doubt this one will ever be quantifiable by a test, but it's just as critical when the only person you're "leading" is yourself.
Kranz was only 37 years old when the eyes of the world, the pride of a nation and the lives of three men hung on each decision made. It's no surprise he and all the people involved had to delude themselves that failure was not an option. Because, the pure truth is that failure is always an option. Even on a day VFR flight of 30 miles, failure is an option. But somewhere in the leadership of just ourselves, or teams of others, there's the right acceptance of that fact to be prepared, tempered by the right denial of that truth to keep it from distracting or debilitating.
Maybe I'll get a better insight into how to hit that balance when I get Kranz's book out from the library.