Lessons in Manliness from Gene Kranz

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 20, 2009 · 14 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness


Editor’s note: Today as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon, our thoughts often turn to the heroic astronauts who walked on lunar dust. But the men on the ground were just as essential to the success of the landing, maybe none of them more than Gene Kranz, Flight Director not only for Apollo 11, but the near tragic flight of Apollo 13 and many more.

Today, AoM reader Colin Pesyna illuminates some of the great lessons we can learn from one of the most excellent leaders in American history. Thanks for this great post, Colin.

I am among the many who consider the exploration of space to stand superlative among mankind’s achievements. Of the great many men and women involved in the history of our species’ excursions into outer space, NASA flight director Gene Kranz time and again distinguished himself as remarkable leader. His oversight of the dramatic Apollo 13 mission is perhaps his most well known achievement, but it was under his watch that NASA rededicated itself after the tragedy of Apollo 1, achieved its aim of a lunar landing on Apollo 11, and took some of the first steps towards a long term human presence in space with Skylab. There is much to be learned about personal integrity and leadership by studying the conduct and attributes of this great man.

Confidence in Yourself and Your Peers

Spaceflight is a dangerous and exacting business. Irreversible decisions must often be made with incomplete information and under strict time pressure. Often the success of the mission or the safety of the crew can depend on these single moments.

Kranz was confident in his  ability to swiftly and correctly come to understand the salient aspects of these kinds of critical problems. Like any great leader, he was able to synthesize the provided information into a course of action that would ultimately become a solution. And he was able to stay cool and collected as he did so.

But while Kranz was a pilot himself and trained as an engineer, neither he nor any other single man could be expected to have all the abilities and knowledge necessary to make these decisions in isolation. Kranz was only 31 years old when he became NASA’s Flight Director. And the average age of the men of Mission Control at the time of Apollo 11 was only 26. Many older engineers didn’t believe that a moon landing was possible and didn’t have much faith in the future of space travel and thus the security of such a job. So Kranz led a group of recent college graduates, a crew that made up for their lack of experience with a dedication to make the project a success.

Kranz had faith in them to do their jobs, voice their concerns, and give their honest assessments of the situation at hand. His faith in them gave them faith in themselves. His leadership united the team and filled them with a sense of intense drive and great purpose. They all knew that under his watch, failure was not an option.

Presence Under Pressure

During the initial moments after the explosion on Apollo 13, Mission Control was working furiously to make sense of what was happening. New failures and alarms were occurring with each moment, and every engineer on duty was desperately trying to make sense of the tide of information. Kranz, as Flight Director, had the responsibility of understanding what his men were telling him and figuring out how to keep the crew safe and the mission on track. He was also tasked with keeping his men focused on their jobs, ensuring that he and his team fulfilled their duties efficiently and correctly. As the astronauts lost oxygen and electrical power for reasons that had yet to be identified, Kranz’s voice cut through with a simple command: “Okay now, let’s everybody keep cool. Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing.” Listening to the flight control recordings, I am amazed and the calmness in his voice. Kranz is thinking clearly, and his voice does not betray any fear or sense of panic that he might be feeling. Being this kind of anchor in the storm gives those around you the confidence to stay level-headed too. Always be in control of yourself and remain in the moment.

Continual Ambition

After attaining some great accomplishment, some men are content to rest on their laurels and live out their days basking in the residual glow of that success. True leaders, on the other hand, are always anxious to be pushing forward; they want their legacy not be used as fodder for history books, but as a springboard for others to continue to press onwards and upwards. While the 40th anniversary of the moon landing is a big to-do, Gene Kranz almost didn’t come to the celebration for it in DC. For him, these reunions are bittersweet. Ten years ago he said, “Three decades ago, in a top story of the century, Americans placed six flags on the Moon. Today we no longer try for new and bold space achievements; instead, we celebrate the anniversaries of the past. The stagnation of the space program over the past decade has done nothing to ameliorate these feelings. He said recently, “Basically, I feel sad. And I think everybody up there (from the Apollo-era NASA contingent) will express pretty much the same thing. Here we’re now 40 years after our first lunar landing, and the next lunar landing is nowhere in sight.” A leader is man who is always anxious to look to the future, not to the past.

Personal Style

While Kranz has much to teach us about leadership, determination, and substance of character, he was also no slouch when it came to style. His wife, Marta, would provide him with his trademark white vest, emblazoned with the mission patch for that flight. This signature of fashion remains a piece of NASA folklore to this day. Additionally, Kranz’s flattop haircut was a staple of his appearance. Whether consciously or not, Kranz’s cultivation of a unique image served to make him one of the most recognizable men in the space program. A man should strive to adopt a style that will remain invariant over the transformations of fashion, and develop aspects of his personal appearance that will be singularly associated with him.

The Kranz Dictum

On January 27th, 1967 Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in fire during a training exercise. The following Monday, Kranz addressed his team, delivering what became known as the Kranz Dictum. Although it is directed at the members of Mission Control, Kranz’s words transcend that narrow audience. His will to honesty, purpose, and perfection are the heart of this man’s lesson to us all.

I urge you to read his words in full. Pay close attention to his unequivocal sense of personal accountability and the clarity of his demands that he and those who will work under him will hold themselves to only the most exacting standards. The speech is brief, but rich. Its two paragraphs contain great lessons.

”Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”

A full study of this great man is beyond the scope of a simple blog entry. To learn more about Kranz and his achievements at NASA, one may look to his autobiography, Failure is Not an Option, or this documentary of the same name. (Be sure to check out Part 8 about Apollo 13, perhaps the most dramatic single episode.)

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew - Success Questions July 20, 2009 at 3:16 am

Awesome post and video clip!

2 Hutch July 20, 2009 at 5:34 am

Great post Colin! Gene Kranz is an excellent example of a true leader.

3 John Fleming July 20, 2009 at 8:17 am


4 Trish Lewis July 20, 2009 at 8:23 am

I was ‘there’ 40 years ago. I was a 10 year girl GLUED to the TV with millions others. I remember it VERY well. Chills ran through me, and I truly believed in my lifetime we’d be living on the Moon and exploring Mars. I still believe it’ll happen, that it’s just a matter of wanting it bad it enough and making the money available. I still struggle with the fact so many here on earth need that money for just survival here and balancing it all. That said, I now work for a federal agency and in my 20 years there have come to know a former mission control tech who still, to this day, when on the phone with me (he works for a ‘mission control’ of sorts for my agency’s technical center) sounds like he’s at mission control, talking in his business-like monotone voice, which makes me smile…

5 Robert July 20, 2009 at 9:28 am

Cool post.

Worth noting Gene Kranz never said “failure is not an option”… The line came from the movie Apollo 13. He just liked how it embodied the spirit of those who worked on bring Apollo 13 to a safe return and adopted it for his book.

Movie theatrics while historically inaccurate sometimes do match the spirit.

6 MIKEY July 20, 2009 at 11:31 am

And let us not forget that it was the Honorable President John F Kennedy who initiated the USA’s first place landing on the moon. He had his sights first set on Mars but had to settle for the Moon. I think my girlfriend and I spent like 18 hours in front of a black and white tv waiting for that first step…. and then we heard about this little art and music festival being held in upstate NY at a place called Woodstock!

7 Brian July 20, 2009 at 12:24 pm

As an employ of NASA I had the honor to meet Mr. Kranz at an employee event a couple of years ago. He talked mostly of the Apollo 13 mission and our new endeavor with the Ares I rocket system. He is a great speaker and still rocks the flattop.

8 Dave Massey July 22, 2009 at 5:06 pm

What a guy and what a team – inspirational!!!

9 Jerry July 30, 2009 at 2:34 am

Thanks for this article! I really didn’t know anything about this great man before reading this. And I really appreciate the link to those Youtube videos-they were great. I kept saying I would just watch one part more but then I couldn’t stop and watched the whole thing.

10 Sergant January 17, 2010 at 11:13 am

Thanks/ Great/ Makes life easier to remember that there are things more complicated than that you could imagine in daily life.

11 Jean Kranz February 13, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Was browsing through my facebook page and links and happened upon your website. Nice tribute. Good write-up. Actually, Hollywood coined the phrase during the filming of Apollo 13. They took what he actually said and condensed it into a shorter sense of his intent. Enjoyed the read. I am going to have to share it with him.
Jean M. Kranz – “Jeannie”

12 Colin Pesyna February 14, 2010 at 12:35 pm

I’m glad that you liked the post, Jean. I hope that your father enjoys reading it!

13 Jerry November 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Also, look at the speech JFK was to deliver to the audience at the Dallas Trade Mart.

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