AVweb

« Back to Full Story

Self-Delusion Saves Lives

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

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.

Comments (9)

"A good leader has the uncanny skill to follow suggestions of others sometimes and reject them other times" ... so "good leaders" are those whose 'gut instincts' have proved correct in the past. This is known as 'survivor bias' - anyone who's relied on their gut & been lucky is deemed to be a 'good leader'. When you're done with 'Failure is not an option' (pretty good, though I'm not sure you'll end up liking Kranz all that much), have a look at 'The Halo Effect' and maybe 'Fooled By Randomness'.

Posted by: Ceri Reid | June 14, 2010 7:47 AM    Report this comment

To that, I'd add two more: The Unthinkable: Who Survives Survives When Diasaster Strikes and Why and Deep Survival.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 14, 2010 8:23 AM    Report this comment

As a former senior enlisted member of the military, I attended many mandatory training courses and lectures about leaderhip. The military defines leadership as the art of motiviating others to accomplish a mission.

The instructor for one of those courses asked us before dismissing us one day to look for examples of leadership in our everyday lives to discuss as part of the next day's lesson.

As I arrived at my on-base family quarters on a steamy Oklahoma afternoon in July (around 98 degrees or so) I was decidedly not looking forward to mowing the lawn in preparation for the next day's base-wide military housing lawn inspections.

Getting out of my car, I noticed my neighbor, another senior enlisted man, standing on his front porch wearing shorts and flip-flops while holding from all appearances, based on the copious condensation dripping from it, a bottle of ice-cold beer.

He was watching his red-faced, sweating wife push a mower through their lawn.

Thinking about my instructor's request at the end of class, I realized I was witnessing what was likely the greatest, most intrepid demonstration of leaderhip I had ever seen -- or was likely ever to see...

Posted by: Mark Sletten | June 14, 2010 8:42 AM    Report this comment

Me thinks the SAS motto "He who dares WINS" says it all. You have to convince yourself that what you are about to embark on is an easily achievable objective and that you will succeed no matter the obstacles. Business is the same if you are not 110% convinced that you will succeed in your chosen venture the chances are that you will fail.

Yes I believe you have to lie to yourself to achieve.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | June 14, 2010 1:30 PM    Report this comment

Lying implies falsehood.

I think the more appropriate words ought to be tenacity and perseverance, especially when facing seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

Posted by: Jin Kiat Chin | June 14, 2010 5:34 PM    Report this comment

My most treasured book is an autographed "Failure is Not an Option." Kranz covers not only Apollo 13, but gives great insight into NASA from the time it was two offices at Langley AFB until the Shuttle era.

Survivor bias, yes; also look at choice-supportive bias and confirmation bias. Yes, maybe Kranz was less extraordinarily talented than extraordinarily lucky. But I don't think so.

Among what I learned from Kranz's book 1) Practice emergencies no matter how unfair they seem, because even if you never face that particular emergency, you will handle it better than if you never practiced any emergencies 2) Know your resources and know your systems, aka if you don't know, know how to find out 3) When the time comes, be prepared to make a tough decision.

Maybe we're not lying to ourselves, but by banishing lingering thoughts of failure, we commit a greater portion of our mental capacity towards solving problems and succeeding.

Posted by: Donald Harper | June 15, 2010 12:45 PM    Report this comment

I think this op-ed missed the target; 'failure is not an option' is just a different way of saying 'fly the airplane'. Or maybe 'it ain't over 'till it's over'.

Hazardous Attitude 1: Resignation ... Believing failure is an option is most of the way there.

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | June 16, 2010 1:47 AM    Report this comment

Quoted"Among what I learned from Kranz's book 1) Practice emergencies no matter how unfair they seem, because even if you never face that particular emergency, you will handle it better than if you never practiced any emergencies 2) Know your resources and know your systems, aka if you don't know, know how to find out 3) When the time comes, be prepared to make a tough decision." Don Harper This kind of thinking in my book is not lying to yourself, it is facing the truth. I heard it said, and you might know who said it, "We don't rise to the occasion in an emergency, we fall to the level of our best training."

Posted by: Peter Zabriskie | June 18, 2010 10:32 AM    Report this comment

Another thoughtful piece guys.

Posted by: john hogan | June 23, 2010 10:29 AM    Report this comment

Add your comments

Log In

You must be logged in to comment

Forgot password?

Register

Enter your information below to begin your FREE registration

« Back to Full Story