JWMI Connect Series: Leadership Lessons from the Movie “Apollo 13”

JWMI Connect Series: Leadership Lessons from the Movie “Apollo 13”

When unexpected challenges arise, how do you devise bold solutions to solve what seems unsolvable?

The movie “Apollo 13” is based on the true story of a catastrophic oxygen tank explosion aboard the spacecraft. The team had to abort their mission to the moon and ended up reallocating vast resources in a race against time to save three astronauts and bring them back to Earth safely.

The story illustrates finding success in failure, but you don’t need to travel to space find ways to overcome adversity through problem-solving, collaboration, positivity, and open-mindedness.

As part of the JWMI’s thought leadership webinar series, Lou Melocchi, Financial Management II MBA Professor and Senior Vice President of Corporate Finance at F.N.B. Corporation, and Keith Chiavetta, JWMI MBA student and President & CEO, Global Business Transformation Professionals, used the movie Apollo 13 to demonstrate how leaders effectively tackle unanticipated obstacles.

Leadership Lessons from the Movie “Apollo 13”

Ask Expert Questions and Empower Your Team

Houston, we have a problem.

We’re all familiar with Jack Swigert’s famous quote. Beyond accepting the inevitable problem, it’s imperative to ask expert questions to gain the clarity needed when a crisis hits.

In Apollo 13, the character of Gene, NASA’s Flight Director, asks expert questions such as: “What’s your data telling you? What systems do you have down? Is this an instrumentation problem, or are we looking at real power loss?” He broke the problem down further and pushed his team by asking: “What do we have on the spacecraft that’s still in working condition?”

Like any good leader, Gene adapted his response based upon information from his team.

The lunar excursion module (LEM) was never meant to land Earth—it was supposed to land on the moon. And yet both mission control and the crew arrived at the same idea that they could leverage the LEM to return the astronauts to Earth safely. Gene questions his team and challenges their recommendations, but he exhibits true leadership by empowering them to make decisions and find solutions that eventually bring the team home safely.

Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be. —Jack Welch

Jack redefined strategic business planning by asking five expert questions. Strategic decisions start with recognizing an “a-ha” moment for your business—from there, you need to debate, grapple with, wallow in, and dig your playing field (that is, your competitive situation) and its players. Once these questions have been answered and debated, you need to put the right people in the right jobs and empower them to execute the strategy quickly.

Clearly Communicate, Work the Problem and Trust the Experts

When adversity arises, leaders must communicate, keep calm, pull the team together, work the problem, and be inclusive.

There is nothing more developmental and illuminating than dealing with adversity. —Jack Welch

Gene drew a simple picture to identify and establish the new goal of getting the astronauts home safely. His communication style focused on the team and defined the problem. As a result, the team understood the sense of urgency and the new goal.

Additionally, Gene led his team to work the problem by creating a culture of debate. He wanted to test his ideas, and he wanted people to push back, asking questions like, “What am I not thinking about?”

He employed Jack’s principle of “all brains in the game” —asking the LEM designers at Northrop Grumman to think about what the LEM can do, not what it was designed to do. He was looking for a new perspective from outside of the organization to solve the problem.

Leverage the Power of Positive Thinking

Jack taught us that a leader has to have positive energy. Gene embodies this principle when he proclaims to his doubtful superior, “I believe this will be our finest hour.”

Leading with positivity is even more crucial in the face of fear and uncertainty. Jack said, “You might have many fears about competition, about what’s happening out there, or you might have some problems at home. Leave the problems at home, and leave the fears in the back of your head. Now, I don’t mean for you to be Pollyanna. And I don’t mean to you to be a cheerleader, blindly with the rain coming in the windows. What I do mean, though, is for you to exude a can-do attitude, we can do it. We together can do it, and you’ve got to be out there all the time doing it. And the last thing you can do is be a bore.”

In Apollo 13, fear is a motivator for the team to return the astronauts’ home expeditiously. Fortunately, strong leadership allows them to succeed.

The Jack Welch MBA teaches students how to build teams and become better leaders. Thought leadership webinars through our student and alumni portal, JWMI Connect, allow students to complement the classroom lessons in their professional lives.

To read more from Lou Melocchi’s Leadership Webinar Series, visit:



About Lou Melocchi:
Lou is a Finance Professor at JWMI as well as a senior financial leader with over 22 years of experience in corporate and divisional finance roles at both Fortune 150 companies and mid-market high growth companies. His functional expertise lies in financial planning and analysis, data analytics, and corporate finance.

Lou spent about half of his manufacturing career with two large manufacturing conglomerates, Alcoa and Honeywell International, in a variety of information technology and financial/operations analysis roles. The other half of his career has been spent in services industries—largely education, healthcare, and financial services, in various finance roles. He currently serves as Senior Vice President of Corporate Finance for First National Bank Corporation in Pittsburgh, PA, and oversees finance-operations and investor relations.

Lou prides himself on having a polymodal educational background, and believes that “there are no uninteresting topics… only uninterested people.” He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Accounting from Saint Vincent College, a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management and Industrial Administration from Carnegie Mellon University, and a Doctorate in Marketing from Argosy University.

About Keith Chiavetta:
Keith is the President & CEO at Global Business Transformation Professionals as well as a JWMI MBA student. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneur in Residence at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.

Keith is a senior executive strategist with over 25 years of entrepreneurial experience, having launched and run two companies. He also spent 15 years working in leadership roles at Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Grant Thornton.

Keith is an expert in corporate strategy, operations, information technology, finance, and mergers & acquisitions and holds a BA in Finance and Political Science from the University of Iowa.