When not to delegate - the man with a small step knew the answer

Submitted by Mark on 22nd July 2019

HR, moon landing, delegate, delegation at work, employees, business,

Neil had plenty on his mind. It was a summer afternoon in 1969 and things at work had just become - how shall we put it - a little tense. The most audacious and expensive expedition in history was in danger of coming to a rocky conclusion, bringing to a dramatic and tragic end the aspirations of half the globe, as well as millions of dollars of equipment - not to mention the lives of his co-worker and of Neil himself.

Every successful team leader, MD or CEO understands the value of delegating - appreciating the numerous reasons for giving responsibility to others in the team. But, there are moments in business, often moments of crisis, when the best option is simply to … do it yourself.

Neil was of course none other than Neil Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The few minutes leading to the landing of the lunar module, The Eagle, onto the moon’s surface provide a perfect illustration of when the delegating has to stop.

Armstrong had realised all was not well. Guided by onboard computers, he and his colleague, Buzz Aldrin, were skimming towards their designated landing point. Armstrong could see through the window that the surface was strewn with boulders. The chances of a safe and steady landing were negligible.  Armstrong knew that that, unless he took immediate control himself, disaster was inevitable.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the 38-year-old mission commander and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin and for a nervously watching world.

Alarms from the landing radar computers had suddenly begun flashing on the control panels in front of the two astronauts. Armstrong could see the dangers with his own eyes. He took the decision to switch off the computer and take manual control of the module.

To compound the imminent danger, another alarm sounded. As the tiny, cramped spacecraft continued racing down toward the moon’s surface. their fuel tank was running dry. There was 60-seconds of fuel left - maximum.

Armstrong heard the unwelcome news but remained focused on the controls while studying the moonscape unfolding beneath the cockpit window.

Over the next 30 seconds, the two men descended 90 feet, which meant they had another half a minute worth of fuel in the module’s tank.

Seconds ticked before Armstrong finally located an open expanse of grey, dusty terrain on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, where he could safely land the Eagle - which he did.

Crises happen. They happen to all companies and to all people. They happen in our personal lives and in our professional lives. By definition, crises bring change, big change. They can change the entire trajectory of your life or your company's future. That's why how we behave in a crisis, how we manage a crisis, is such a big deal. 

In times of crisis, not everyone rises to the occasion. Some might tip over the edge and do stupid things, causing untold damage to their company and to their colleagues. Their instincts might cause them to react or overreact in ways that make matters worse instead of better.

The way you behave in a crisis can change the fate of so many people - in your company, maybe in other companies too. The usual advice in times of crisis is to 

1. Assess

Fight every instinct to react or overreact. Take a few deep breaths. Be calm. Keep a clear mind. Focus on facts. 

2. Engage

Engage and involve all key stakeholders

3. Plan

Once you have all the data and your team in place, develop best, typical, and worst-case scenarios. Planning enables you to act quickly, confidently, and effectively when the time comes to act.

4. Act

Be proactive, not reactive--obvious in theory but difficult in practice.

5. Communicate

Communicate transparently and honestly, or at least appear to. In a crisis, your instincts may be to react, keep things close to your vest, or even do nothing. You need to fight those instincts. There's obviously a significant degree of subjectivity to all this. But when it comes to crisis management, effectiveness comes with experience. 

I know what you’re thinking - ‘This is crazy. How can this apply to Neil Armstrong and the moon landing? He had only seconds to make his decision to cease delegating to the computers and to take over the controls for himself.’ The answer’s simple and the clue lies in item 3 above. It’s all in the planning - or to use another term - training. Neil Armstrong was a highly-skilled US Air Force test pilot. He had spent years training how to respond in moments of crisis - knowing when to act alone in an emergency, for the benefit of himself and the colleagues who depended on him. 

This is something at which the military is superb - something we can all learn. By rigorously envisaging and analysing every conceivable eventuality, we can then be far more skilled at responding to urgent or critical issues. We can learn in advance when the time for delegating is over - when it’s time for us to take over the controls, step in and act. The better trained we are in this skill, the more likely we are to enjoy a happy outcome.

Here to help

As employment specialists, we understand the value of planning, preparation, when to delegate and when to go it alone. We’re here to support you in every aspect of people management.

For straight-talking advice, call us - 01604 763494

Or email - info@GravitasHR.co.uk