Apollo 13 – A lesson in self-belief and leadership

The saving of the lives of the Apollo 13 crew in April 1970 is such a brilliant leadership example. A remarkable achievement where clear and confident leadership contributed hugely to success. The foundation of this success lay in the single positive belief that a huge challenge could be overcome.

Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space programme and the third intended to land on the Moon. On April 11, 1970, at 13:13 CST, the craft launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Commander James A. Lovell, Jr., Fred W. Haise, Jr., and Commander John L. “Jack” Swigert were the astronauts on board. Ken Mattingly, originally intentioned to be the third member of the crew, was left behind. Unfortunately, he’d been exposed to German measles and had to be replaced. It was actually a good thing for Apollo 13 that Ken Mattingly was still on the ground. His expertise would soon help save his crewmates.

Immediately following its launch, it seemed as if everything was normal with Apollo 13. But almost fifty-six hours into the flight—at about 10:06 p.m. EST, over 200,000 miles from Earth, on the 13th of April, 1970—Apollo 13 got into serious trouble. The astronauts heard a loud bang, which perhaps was a small meteorite strike or malfunction that had catastrophic consequences for the craft. The astronauts observed a problem with the power supply and the loss of a significant quantity of the oxygen supply held in the storage tanks. After about three minutes, the Supply Module’s oxygen supply was entirely depleted. Because the fuel cell depends on the oxygen to generate power, the spacecraft was now entirely dependent on the Command Module’s limited-duration battery power and water. The crew was forced to shut down the Command module completely to conserve any power for re-entry—the prospects looked bleak.


The lives of the crew were in serious danger. The severely damaged Service Module had lost its ability to produce electricity, oxygen, and water. Swigert, followed by Lovell, radioed Mission Control the now famous line: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.

Back in Houston, Mission Control and Ken Mattingly frantically worked together to find a way to get the crew back to Earth. It didn’t look hopeful, wasn’t easy. The answer to this problem was going to be really complicated.

In the meantime, with their oxygen being depleted, the crew in space had to power down their Command Module (“Odyssey”), power up the Lunar Module (“Aquarius”), and make sure they had working air lines. Aquarius would not take them to the Moon this trip, but thankfully it would help to save their lives.

Solving this problem on the ground meant that flight controllers needed to develop a mission-saving system that could be replicated in space. Simple items, such as cardboard and tape, were used to create what was dubbed “the mailbox,” which saved the astronauts. They did it—one hour before re-entry, the crew jettisoned Aquarius. It helped save their lives but would not survive a re-entry.

Apollo 13 landed in the Pacific Ocean 142 hours, 54 minutes, and 41 seconds after lift-off. The USS Iwo Jima recovered the men and Odyssey. Most of this particular mission had occurred under extremely dangerous, life-threatening conditions.

The teamwork between NASA’s Houston team and the flight crew members was absolutely brilliant. An example of leadership at it’s best. Connected, clear, calm thinking by Johnson Space Center personnel, working under unbelievable pressure, helped to save the mission and the lives of the crew.

Jim Lovell later said:

I think one of the things that showed the people of the world was that even if there is a great catastrophe, good leadership and teamwork, initiative and perseverance—these things make for getting an almost certain catastrophe into a successful recovery.

Returning the crew safely was one of NASA’s finest moments. Without the belief that it could be done, a clear plan, and, crucially, the confidence that this plan could be carried out, the Apollo 13 crew would not have survived. If the team did not believe they could save the crew, then they wouldn’t have done what was necessary to save their lives. That story always amazes me because it shows the power of the human brain, the resource it is against seemingly insurmountable problems.

What leadership challenges do you face that you can solve by

  1. Believing you can
  2. Formulating a clear plan
  3. Taking confident action today?

To help you get started, please download The Smart Formula 3 minute Goal Setting Template https://thesmartformula.com/3-minute-goal-setting-template/

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Confidence – Essential for Your Success

Each one of you is here, reading this post for a different reason. Yes, so many of us are interested in confidence and success. But we are all unique. We all come at this from different angles. Different factors are contributing to any perceived lack of confidence we may have in whatever area affects us most.

What is confidence anyway and why do we need it?

I like the definition that “Confidence is the belief that we will succeed at the things we do”. I also think that confidence is a feeling – when we feel confident, there’s a comfortable feeling associated with it.

Lack of confidence is an absolute pain in the ass, at best. A waste of valuable thinking time, what a waste of energy… A lack of confidence absolutely means that you are not making the most of your life – how could you be when your productive time and energy are taken up with “lack of confidence” thoughts?!

We need confidence to:

  • Get things done & succeed
  • To feel happy
  • To engage with our world enthusiastically
  • As a framework to deal with difficult conversations
  • To lead and inspire
  • To motivate teams
  • To know that we are enough
  • To solve problems

We need confidence. That’s a truth.I’ve worked with a lot of people for whom confidence was an issue. From public speaking, to socialising, to going for that promotion, taking a business to the next level; so many people live life believing that they are simply not good enough. This is quite simply – wrong.

Like everything, it is possible to practice being confident and with practice comes the skill.

In my twenties I started researching confidence, happiness, reaching your potential, how to live a better life. Until a few years before that, I hadn’t really thought about confidence or lack thereof, really. Now, years later, I have found that when I practice something I’m not good at, no matter what that is – business planning, speaking, negotiating – I get better at it and with that comes confidence…

So, confidence is the belief that we will succeed at something we do. Makes sense right. If we don’t believe we can do something, why try it in the first place. If you truly believe you can do something, then you will. I don’t play golf, but I have heard it said that the furthest distance on a golf course is the distance between your two ears.

And, also, confidence is that underlying feeling that comes with believing you are good enough at something – the positive, confident thoughts running around in your head that come with the belief that you will succeed. This can happen with practice.

So many people have had some successes in life so far, and because of this, there’s evidence within you that you can harness, to help you ‘believe’ that you will succeed at other things you do. For many this belief is challenged daily, hourly even, by lots of the 60,000+ thoughts we have each and every day. That’s 3,500 thoughts running through your brain every waking hour – estimating about 7 hours sleep. Having confidence is undermined by negative self-talk. Imagine if even half of the 3,500 thoughts per hour are negative!

As CEO’s, leaders, managers, team players, even as part of a family, it can sometimes be lonely; you often just have yourself to talk to – this means it’s more important than ever that this self-talk is positive. Enough other people will be the naysayer – there’s no need for you to be!

It’s OK to feel this way sometimes. Most people do. The good news is – again – having confidence/being confident is a skill that can be learned, like everything else, with practice.

Below is a plan to help you understand what confidence means to you and a starter process to help develop your confidence, and to know you can do something about it.

Below is a 4 step process that you can use and practice, to build your confidence:

1. Decide that you will be confident.

You know the feeling of relief you feel after you have made a decision? Brain science shows that making decisions calms the limbic system, reducing worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.

Yes, making decisions can be hard, and how can you ensure you make the right decisions – the decisions that serve you best? Neuroscience research says to ‘make a good enough’ decision. Don’t stress to make the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up. Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control. Good enough is nearly always good enough.

So, when you make a decision, your brain feels you have control. And a feeling of control reduces stress and increases pleasure.So, make a decision to be more confident right now.

2. Show yourself some Kindness

For many people, confidence is about being better than others, about achievement. Kindness or self-compassion is just that – treating oneself kindly. Treating yourself as you would, a good friend. Forgive yourself. Often when we make a mistake, confidence flies out the window and we become self-critical. We are all worthy of forgiveness, and before confidence, must come, forgiveness and kindness to ourselves. It’s OK and we deserve it even when we have done something we regret or didn’t achieve as well as we set out to.

Researchers at the University of Texas have shown that people who show themselves kindness have been shown to exhibit significantly less anxiety and depression, plus, show more happiness, optimism and other positive emotions.

Often, people who are confident, can have set-backs when things go wrong. Maintaining confidence and resilience requires you to forgive yourself when this happens and to show yourself the kindness you would perhaps reserve for others.

When you get in the habit of being kind to yourself, of knowing you intrinsically deserve respect no matter whether you achieve or not, then you are on the road to being more confident, less dependent on the opinions of others and less shaken when things go wrong.

For example, imagine being in a potentially embarrassing situation; scoring an own-goal, totally losing your train of thought during an important presentation, crying in front of the bank-manager (which I once did many years ago). One particular study required participants to imagine situations such as this. Results showed that self-compassionate participants, the people who said things like, ‘these things happen’, ‘I’ll know better next time’, were more likely to maintain their confidence than those who beat themselves up about it.

There is also evidence that kindness to yourself even makes you less likely to procrastinate. It also boosts happiness and reduces stress.

This research has shown something that you may well instinctively agree with: you’re often far harder on yourself than others. Why is that? Part of it comes down to neuroscience. Your brain is wired to care for friends in need. But that same system doesn’t take effect when we beat ourselves up. It takes practice to be kind to yourself – the benefits, though are increased confidence, happiness and positivity.

3. Know who you really are and what you believe about yourself and what you care about – realize your value.

It may seem silly to say ‘know who you are’, yet many of the reasons for lack of confidence come from not really knowing yourself, how what you believe about life affects you, and clarifying for yourself, what really matters to you. Take some time to reacquaint you with you – Remind yourself of how smart you are – your strengths. Know what’s important to you.

For example, if you lack the confidence to put yourself forward for a job promotion, what is the belief that is stopping you? Often it can be simply, ‘I am not good enough’. It may not be true, more than likely is not true but if you believe it, this will affect your confidence in a negative way.

A really effective start in the quest for confidence is to substitute your negative beliefs with a positive statement ie ‘I am good enough.’ Believe it, repeat it regularly.

It’s important for our positivity, confidence and success to regularly remind ourselves what we are good at. It’s also crucial that we use these strengths in our daily lives, at home and at work.

Also, take some time to write down what matters to you, it’s a reminder to you of what’s really important. When you live your life acting according to what’s important to you, it gets rid of self-doubt, helps with decision making and increases confidence, happiness & positivity.

Now answer this – how committed are you to doing what it takes to be more confident?

4. Prepare and Practice

Worrying about lack of confidence can help you identify potential problems, but it shouldn’t stop you coming up with solutions. If, for example you’re worried about an upcoming presentation or meeting at work, then prepare for it. Prepare, prepare and prepare some more.

When I used to deal with leading global beauty brands like St Tropez, Smashbox Cosmetics, OPI and various others, at the start I felt quite intimidated going to meet the people there. These were huge, global corporations and I ran a much smaller company company in a small country. I knew however, by then, which confidence tools to use, so I prepared for each and every meeting meticulously. I knew the numbers, made multiple copies of each presentation and went to every meeting with potential solutions to every challenge we faced in the marketplace.

After a few meetings, some of the people I met didn’t bother to prepare for these meetings at all. They depended on me to have everything to hand that they needed. I usually left the meetings with the marketing support I needed – plus often a few extras. Then the recession came and negotiations were more difficult but I had practiced enough by then. I started to feel really confident about the quality of my work. I tell you this story, really, to illustrate the benefits of preparing for situations in which you may not feel confident. Prepare and practice until you actually feel confident.

No matter what you practice in life, you will improve at it. You repeat certain procedures at work every day until they become second nature. If you go to the gym every week, you learn how to use the machines. The good news is, when you practice being confident every day, you will become confident. Malcolm Gladwell’s is famous for saying that with 10,000 hours of practice, you can excel at anything – well, it shouldn’t take that number of hours for you to gain more confidence. Thankfully, you can expect to reap the rewards much sooner than that.