Most people know of Neil Armstrong as the first man to step foot onto the moon in July 1969.

Most people know of Neil Armstrong as the first man to step foot onto the moon in July 1969.

The “giant leap” of that first bootprint in the lunar regolith symbolized the collective efforts of thousands of people over seven years at a cost of more than $25 billion (in 1969 dollars) for the Apollo program. For many years, Armstrong was perhaps the most famous man in the world for his 2 hours and 31 minutes of walking on alien terrain.

Few people know of Neil Armstrong as the man who might have single handedly saved the entire U.S. space program in the span of about 10 minutes. It was March 1966, and Armstrong, along with astronaut Dave Scott, had just accomplished history’s first orbital docking by attaching the Gemini VIII spacecraft to an Agena target vehicle at 980,000 feet over the Indian Ocean. Suddenly, the linked space vehicles began to roll and tumble end over end.

As the spin rate increased, Armstrong knew the mission was in jeopardy. He undocked from the Agena, which then caused Gemini VIII to spin even faster, about one revolution per second. No training simulation had prepared the astronauts for this type of emergency. Plus, the craft was out of communication range with Mission Control. Armstrong, acting alone, had just a few precious minutes to find a solution before losing consciousness, which would have resulted in the uncontrolled craft either crashing into the Earth, or tumbling into outer space.

Either way, the pilots would be dead and the space program would have suffered a catastrophic setback.

Despite blurry vision, Armstrong maintained concentration on his flight instruments, quickly worked through various scenarios, and found a solution by engaging the re-entry control system.

The Gemini VIII mission was aborted, but the pilots were alive. And so was Kennedy’s vision of landing on the moon before 1970 (and before the Russians).

There are many leadership lessons from Gemini VIII, especially applicable during difficult times such as economic recession, unforeseen competitive threats, or organizational crisis:

n Evaluate your situation thoroughly. What’s working, and what’s broken?  Can you diagnose and isolate the problem areas?  Do others see the situation the same as you?

n Don’t be in denial. You can’t close your eyes and hope the situation improves on its own.

n Quickly evaluate alternatives. In difficult times, you can’t take months to determine your next steps. Meet with your teams and step through various “what if?” scenarios. Task others to identify alternatives (don’t try to do it all yourself). Set deadlines for decisions and then commit wholeheartedly to the best solution.

n Use your instruments. Gut feel decision making only works in the movies. Analyze your sales history and your cost structures. Research your competition. Evaluate your organization structure. Compare the NPV of various development programs.  Put data to work for you.

n Have an open mind about solutions. Many times the best path is one that hasn’t been tried before. It may also be one with substantial risk. And, Heaven forbid, it may even be an idea that didn’t originate from you personally.

n Stay calm. Effective leaders do not make decisions out of emotion. And they do not tolerate irrational behavior within the organization. The key is to act decisively, but never allow yourself to be rushed or pressured down a path.

Within the Apollo space program, a common phrase was “work the problem,” which meant to calmly and systematically identify issues and quickly come up with solutions.

This is exactly how Neil Armstrong saved his own life in 1966, and it may be a way to help you save yourself from poor decisions when business conditions seem like they are spinning out of control.