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Leadership Biography Paper:

Gene Kranz, Former NASA Flight Director
Jon Aldrich
Drake University

Gene Kranz is best known as the flight director of the successful failure: the Apollo 13

mission. The mentors and experiences that prepared him for this pivotal moment are many and

lasting. The qualities that he embodied became a foundation for all mission control: discipline,

competence, confidence, responsibility, toughness, and teamwork. In ​Failure is not an Option​,

Kranz intertwines these foundational qualities as he tells the story of how he became a leader

through NASA's glory days.

Gene Kranz began his career as a flight test pilot. In this time of his life he met his first

mentor who influenced his leadership style and shaped who he would become. Kranz had just

applied to McDonnell Aircraft Company in St. Louis to work in a data analysis job from flight

tests. His first boss was a man named Harry Carroll. The enthusiasm and passion he had for his

work rubbed off on Kranz and it affected the way he approached his work.

Shortly after, Kranz received flight instruction from a man named Jack Coleman. He

would be Kranz's primary flight instructor and open up the world of flight. Coleman instilled in

Kranz a confidence to perform at the edge of peak performance. This teaching would come in

handy later when Kranz would be training his controllers and building their confidence to the

point when he felt they could be set free.

Kranz was also molded by two other very influential leaders throughout his early years in

NASA: Chris Kraft and John Hodge. Kraft was one of the men who volunteered to lead the

effort to build up the space program. He began by setting up mission command control and the

teams to run it. Kraft always set the tone when the team at mission control lost their composure.

He did not want anyone to see any uncertainty from him during a mission, portraying

confidence. Hodge made a different impression on Kranz. He was more dependent on his team

and easy-going. Kranz noticed that Hodge looked for consensus amongst the team before

making a decision.

The last colleague and mentor that made a profound impact on Kranz's leadership style

was Bill Tindall. Tindall had the ability to focus on issues and bring people together from

diverse backgrounds and fields. He was able to do this because he was friendly, extraordinarily

intelligent in operational systems, and used just the right touch of humor. Just by being around

him, Kranz noticed that they both were unconditional in their support towards their colleagues

and continuously optimistic.

Kranz's strongest leadership attributes came from within. He thought of himself a

dreamer, a change agent. He believes that adapting to the changing times and bettering yourself

while doing it is the best way to live. "I am a dreamer, believing that the mark of a champion is

the ability to thrive in tough times." (Kranz, 2000, p. 355)

Kranz never admitted to being the smartest guy in the room; he probably would have

admitted to being the most competent at his job. He would hire people who he viewed as being

smarter than him and then learned along with them. This mentality allowed him to let people

grow and stretch their capacity. It also earned him respect because he was willing to do the dirty

work with the team.

Not everything in Kranz's career was a success. The lowest point being the Apollo 1 fire

which ended with the deaths of three American astronauts on the launch pad. During the

following week, he spoke to the men that comprised Flight Control teams and offered them a

new vision. Kranz was full of emotion but spoke with conviction that from this day forward

Flight Control will be tough and competent. Kranz set a clear and concise vision for his

controllers throughout his time as a Flight Controller in the Apollo missions. This allowed

Kranz and his team to have continuous success even in the face of tremendous odds.

These words came back as a reminder during a simulation run for Apollo 11. The

simulation supervisor (SimSup) challenged Kranz's team repeatedly with simulations that the

team could not react to quickly enough. At this point in the training, the final simulation is

traditionally a confidence booster to get the team ready for the mission. The SimSup believed

the team was not quite ready and threw them a curveball. He put them through a simulation that

caused multiple alarms the team had not seen before to go off. It caused confusion within the

team; Kranz received an abort recommendation from a member from his team and he made the

call. It was the wrong decision. The SimSup walked the team through the simulation and why it

was the wrong call. The team decided to stay up and figure out how to get better at this situation

that night. It was a brutal day for Kranz and his team, but it ultimately prepared them for the first

moon landing only a month later.

Two weeks later, Apollo 11 would touch down on the moon. As the lunar lander began

its descent to the moon, the exact same problem that occurred in the last simulation happened.

Kranz and the team did everything right this time, and the mission was an obvious success that

changed the world forever. Kranz set up his team for success by giving them opportunities to

train and reflect on the training to improve. He created a culture that revolved around perfecting

each individual controller's craft and the building team's cohesiveness.


After the triumph of Apollo 11, Kranz and his team would wait for Apollo 13 as another

set of controllers would take Apollo 12 to the moon. The Apollo 13 launch went off without a

hitch; all seemed to be going smoothly until Jack Swigert was asked to stir the oxygen tanks.

This caused a reaction between faulty electrical wiring and the oxygen tanks, creating an

explosion in the command module. Not long after Jim Lovell, the commander of the mission,

said, "It looks to me, looking out the window, that we are venting something," (Kranz, 2000, p.

314) Kranz knew they had a major crisis on his hands and that survival of the crew was all that

mattered now.

What made Kranz a successful leader in this dire situation was his ability to manage his

team and those outside of it. He made the decision quickly to give leadership responsibilities

and authority to make decisions to three of his controllers: Arnie Aldrich, Bill Peters, and John

Aaron. Kranz then had the three men pick work areas where they could focus and trusted them

to lead. This management style in a crisis allowed the vast team to delegate efficiently all the

responsibilities needed to bring the three astronauts home.

"From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: 'Tough and

Competent." (Kranz, 2000, p. 204) This was not just the turning point for Flight Control after the

Apollo 1 fire, but a crossroads for Kranz and who he would become as a leader. He demanded

and modeled competency, discipline, confidence, teamwork, responsibility, and toughness. With

these qualities as a foundation of success, Flight Control and Kranz would put two men on the

moon and turn the catastrophic Apollo 13 mission into a triumph.



Kranz, Gene. (2000) ​Failure is not an option.​ New York, NY: Simon and Shuster Paperbacks