There’s an exit off of Interstate 84 in Northern Utah that I have driven by many times. It’s the exit to a company called Thiokol, and whenever I drive by, I do it with a tinge of sadness. Thiokol is an aerospace company, responsible for fabricating the parts for many air and spacecraft. These feelings bubble up whenever I go by, because many years ago, when I was a High School Junior, I recall a fellow student coming into class, telling us about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. It had been a really big deal, the first mission to send a teacher to space, and schools all across the country were watching the launch. It was sad and tragic, and as we would all come to find out in the coming days and weeks, quite preventable.
It came to mind this morning as I read about the passing this weekend of Allan McDonald, an engineer at Thiokol who had been intimately involved behind the scenes of the Challenger mission. As the launch time approached, he had serious reservations about the launch conditions, and would not sign off on it. Those higher up the chain of command countermanded him, and the rest is, sadly, history. When it came time for an investigation of what caused the tragedy, the powers that be would have swept it all under the rug, had it not been for Mr. McDonald raising his hand in the back of the gallery, and standing up to tell the truth. The Challenger Disaster is now taught in graduate schools all over the world as a Case Study of how destructive corporate culture and politics can be when we allow it to override our good judgement.
In later years, Allan McDonald would lead seminars on ethics and leadership in organizations, always stressing what he called The 7 R’s: “Always, always do the right thing for the right reason at the right time with the right people. [And] you will have no regrets for the rest of your life.” It’s simple, but profound advice. You may never face pressure to approve a billion dollar project with life and death consequences. But throughout your life and career, you WILL face situations large and small where your integrity is at stake. At those times, remembering the 7 R’s will help you navigate those situations successfully, and help you sleep better at night.
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