Tough and Competent: Leadership and Team Chemistry by Eugene F. Kranz
The unique leadership and teamwork principles that pushed America’s space program to the moon and back are the focal point of former NASA Director of Mission Operations Eugene F. Kranz’s riveting memoir, Tough and Competent: Leadership and Team Chemistry (Gatekeeper Press).
Best known as the leader of the NASA flight controllers “Tiger Team” who brought the Apollo 13 spacecraft back to Earth, Kranz follows up his bestselling Failure Is Not an Option with this mentor-infused memoir that shares hard-won leadership lessons for today. He also chronicles the ineffable power of what he terms “IT!” or the team chemistry needed for success.
Beginning with Kranz’s childhood and early U.S. Air Force flight career — including the hair-raising depiction of a nearly-fatal solo night flight — Kranz moves to the excruciating lessons of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts (Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White). Kranz’s public response calling for accountability through the twin guiding principles of “Tough” and “Competent” became known as the “The Kranz Dictum.”
“Tough and Competent” entered our common vocabulary … That day we developed the mindset and the individual fire to go to the moon. The day we landed on the moon we would fulfill the pledge we made to Gus, Ed and Roger.”
Kranz describes the high tension and excitement of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in present tense prose that puts the reader inside Mission Control. It is July 20, 1969, and Kranz’s memory of those moments are crystalline, as if it were yesterday:
“At nine minutes in the descent, we give the crew the ‘Go’ for landing. At 2,000 feet, Armstrong views large craters and a boulder field. He decides to overfly the crater. We expect to land with about 120 seconds of fuel remaining but now Carlton, with stopwatch in hand, is calling off the seconds of fuel remaining. 90 seconds … 60 seconds …”
Kranz credits the success of the moon landing to the intangible power of “IT!” that elevated individual and team performance to the point where the impossible becomes commonplace. This unifying operating principle empowered controllers to make split-second decisions for maximum effect. While the technical details and jargon of space and flight operations might fly over the head of most readers, Kranz still writes in a style that makes up for this specialized language: it is pure fun to read about NASA’s bold space projects — from Apollo to Gemini to Skylab, and from the Space Station to the Challenger program and beyond — and get the “inside baseball” scoop on how human beings organized such feats.
Readers will thrill to another retelling of the legendary Apollo 13 mission (“Houston, we have a problem”) that launched Kranz into the public eye, especially after the motion picture that portrayed him and his team doing the impossible to bring the mission’s astronauts back home. In Tough and Competent, Kranz shares elements of the Apollo 13 mission missing from his first book as he outlines the operating team structure, the Program Office, Engineering relationships and the crisis-management process (which should appeal to organizational leaders of interconnected and large teams).
Kranz’s leadership lessons and mantras are often set off from the rest of the narrative, in bold, for those taking notes. Indeed, this fascinating mash-up of memoir and leadership mores is as instructional as it is entertaining:
“A critical mass is the smallest amount of fossil material needed for a nuclear reaction. The same is true for organizations to function. Leadership must exist, goals must be readily apparent, knowledgeable participants must be present to represent critical interests and debate must be fostered within the group to reach the objective in a timely and integrated fashion.”
A natural raconteur, Kranz takes his narrative through to his retirement from NASA in 1994 and his extensive consultation and speaking engagements. What readers come away with is a newfound appreciation for Kranz and his colleagues “who responded to the challenge to plant America’s flag on the Moon … had grown and lived through three wars … and lived as explorers and charted America’s path in space.”
Tough and Competent is an exciting story of NASA’s space program but also an inspiring one for those studying to become game-changing leaders in their fields.
NASA veteran Eugene “Gene” Kranz is best known as leader of the “Tiger Team” flight controllers who returned the damaged Apollo 13 spaceship safely back to Earth on April 17, 1970. He was portrayed by Ed Harris in the 1995 movie “Apollo 13.”
Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, Kranz holds a BS in Aeronautical Engineering from Parks College of Saint Louis University and served in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot and a flight test engineer before joining NASA in 1960. He assumed Flight Director duties for the Project Gemini and Apollo missions, including leading the controller team for America’s first lunar landing during Apollo 11 in 1969. In 1983, Kranz assumed NASA Director of Mission Operations overseeing a workforce of over 5,000. After serving in Mission Control for over 100 launches and effectively overseeing the complete arc of U.S. manned space missions, Kranz retired in 1994 turning to motivational speaking and writing. His book on the early manned space program, Failure Is Not an Option, was a New York Times bestseller and adapted as a 2004 History Channel documentary on Mission Control.
Kranz received numerous awards, including the National Space Trophy, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. His alma mater, Central Catholic in Toledo, displays his NASA Ambassador of Exploration Award alongside other personal NASA mementos. In 2021, the city of Toledo honored its native son when it renamed its airport in honor of Kranz. A Texan for over five decades, Mr. Kranz and his wife Marta are the proud parents of six children.
Publish Date: August 15, 2023
Genre: Business, Nonfiction
Author: Eugene F. Kranz
Page Count: 424 pages
Publisher: Gatekeeper Press