Apollo program

Leadership lessons from lunar landings

August 10, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

The space race may be over, but a visit to mission control can still impart plenty of wisdom. Fortune journeyed inside the Conference Board Apollo Leadership Experience.

By Beth Kowitt, writer

FORTUNE -- As someone who came of age after the space race, I never fantasized about becoming an astronaut. Sure, space exploration was cool, but my interest was mostly limited to catching a bit of The Right Stuff while channel-surfing. So I wasn't sure what to expect as I headed to Houston for the Apollo Leadership Experience, a three-day seminar that uses NASA's mission to the moon as a case study in leadership. Facilitators from the Conference Board, a business membership and research group, explained that I, along with 16 executives from companies ranging from Boeing (BA) to PetSmart (PETM), would use the Johnson Space Center as a classroom for "experiential learning." By discussing historic events and management lessons in the Mission Operations Control Room or in front of the Saturn V rocket, we would forge connections that we could then apply to our professional lives.

I was skeptical. But as Dick Richardson, our leadership expert, said, "There's a little bit of space cadet in all of us." You don't have to be a nerd to feel awestruck by the huge technological strides made by this country, between Kitty Hawk in 1903 and Alan Shepard's flight into space less than 60 years later.

Harv Hartman, who spent 33 years with NASA in human resources, gave us a historical background, with Richardson facilitating the leadership discussion. We looked at the Apollo 1 tragedy, in which three crew members were killed during a capsule fire, as a model of how to refocus after setbacks, and Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, as an example of when leaders need to step up vs. step back. We also saw the film Apollo 13 from the Mission Operations Control Room -- which was very different from watching it from my living room couch. One participant said the program felt like a field trip for grownups. The initial meeting was the last time we'd see a PowerPoint presentation, we were told, which elicited a gleeful "Yes!" from the audience. (We did see two more, but they came from NASA staffers.) While the lessons weren't all that complex -- how to know when stress hurts your workers; the importance of the "soft no" -- the seminar was a chance to reinforce them.

We visited the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where a squad of divers trains with the astronauts, who spend six hours in the 40-foot-deep pool for every hour they spend outside the spacecraft. Although the divers never make it into space, they have a powerful set of common goals. Kristen Bruner, director of organization effectiveness at Boeing, is in the middle of restructuring her own team, and when she returned, she showed her reports photos of the astronauts and divers. Her experience at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab inspired her to rethink her team's purpose. "We live to support the mission, and the mission is the business," she says. "That's the thing that I really pulled into the group."

Back in the office, what I've found myself referring to most often are not the leadership lessons but how my own pressures pale in comparison to what the Apollo mission team faced. If things seem overwhelming, I just remind myself that, hey, at least it's not rocket science.

NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab

NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Lab

This story is from the August 13, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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