Finding Your Character in Your Five Favorite Movies: Apollo 13

Successful Failure: Knowing What is Most Important Now
Today’s post is number four of my series on Movies That Teach – Finding Your Character in Your Five Favorite Movies.  I have covered three movies to date: Groundhog Day, Elizabeth, and The Razor’s Edge.  Today, I write about Apollo 13, which at times I have dubbed as the “greatest training film ever made”.

I have used many scenes from Apollo 13 in various training programs over the years. It lends powerful lessons as far-reaching as leadership, vision and character, to communication, innovation and effective meetings.  (As a reminder, if you show movies or movie clips in a public context, first purchase an umbrella license from the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation.)  

You don’t say how slim they are but rather how you can improve the odds.” are the words of Gene Kranz, NASA’s legendary flight director made famous by actor Ed Harris in “Apollo 13”, the 1995 movie depicting the ill-fated 1970 space flight of the same name. He was referring to his incredibly positive “we’re bringing them home” attitude during the entire life-and-death ordeal. Kranz was being interviewed on April 12, 2010, when he joined other surviving Apollo 13 astronauts and flight directors to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the space mission.

The dramatic Apollo 13 mission took a dramatic turn for everyone, of course, with the now famous unsettling words of flight commander James Lovell when he realized his mission had suddenly changed from landing on the moon to getting home alive:

OK Houston, we’ve had a problem here.

Of course, today Lovell’s famous phrase is popularly recited as “Houston, we have a problem,” slightly different than Lovell actually spoke on April 13, 1970.  This is just one way in which Apollo 13 has taken on legendary qualities and become a symbol of American “against all odds” heroism.

When you see the world in a new way, suddenly possibilities for action exist that were inconceivable a moment earlier.
With so many great characters and lessons to illustrate from a single movie, it is difficult to choose favorites. One of my favorite “scenes” is actually a combination of two scenes: First, when Tom Hanks, playing commander Lovell, is with his son soon after Lovell learns he would be mission commander of the historical flight.  Second, when Lovell is on a crippled ship thousands of miles into space realizing his mission has changed.  Each man depicts a man on a mission – a mission that would change dramatically between the two scenes.

The first scene takes place in the Lovell’s back yard; father and son are talking when Lovell holds his thumb up into his line of sight and completely blanks out his view of the moon.  This brief scene depicts the clear sense of purpose that Lovell now has – to walk on the moon.

The second part of my two-part favorite is when the Apollo team, both in space and on the ground, are devising solutions to abort the original mission and return 13 and its crew safely back to earth.  This is the stuff of which Kranz spoke when he said the ground crew was not focused on how unlikely the odds were for survival of the flight crew. They were focused on improving the odds.

In this second scene, Tom Hanks has just visualized himself making his moon; then he once again holds his thumb into his line of sight, this time blocking any view of the Earth – his home and family. His mission and purpose changes absolutely with this small gesture.

“Gentlemen, what are your intentions? I’d like to go home,” he says, and in that instant establishes a new mission for his team.  His purpose has changed in a moment’s thought, yet he and his crew will pursue this new purpose with the same resolve, focus and dedication as the first.  Ten words in a matter of seconds, yet a truly great moment of leadership… And what a wonderful illustration of The Intersection of Purpose and Now.  I have delivered entire workshops on leadership, vision and strategy using this single scene as a launching pad (pun intended).

Readers of this blog may be familiar with my views on “work-life balance”, a concept that I dismiss as misguided. Recognizing the stresses and conflict behind the desire for “balance”, I encourage people to replace it with a clear sense of focus on “what is most important to me now.”  What is most important to me now can change in any moment. Values and priorities may not change, but they may shift from day to day and yes, new purpose can evolve even from moment to moment.

“I am doing exactly what I want to be doing with my life right now.” These are words I utter often when speaking to a new group of people. They are not words I use lightly.  The most important goal of the Apollo 13 mission team on April 12, 1970, was to land on the moon. In one brief moment on April 13, 1970, that mission changed dramatically.  “What is important now” changed. Same people – different mission.

Ultimately, our most important values always rise to the top.

About pdncoach

A Go-Giver business coach working with leaders whose success depends on the performance and productivity of others. I coach individual leaders and their teams... in small to mid-size businesses, ministries and non-profits... to accelerate their results and achieve dreams by getting past the difficult, strategic challenges of their current realities.
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