What the Challenger Space Shuttle & Two Engineers Can Teach Us About Moral Resiliency

It was one of “those” moments – a moment that everyone recalls where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.  It was January. And bitterly cold. Even in Florida.  Bright, sunny, blue skies, but cold, on the morning the Challenger Space Shuttle, carrying the first civilian space passenger, exploded and disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff. 

Drip by drip over time, the truth emerged.  Two engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company who made the booster rockets for the shuttle, refused to give last minute approval for the launch.  They were concerned that the O-rings inside the rockets would contract in the cold weather, allowing fuel to leak and causing the rockets to explode.  After some internal back and forth inside and between Morton Thiokol and NASA, the launch was approved the night before liftoff. But not by Allan McDonald, the director of the booster rocket program and Roger Boisjoly, another Morton Thiokol engineer who had expressed concerns about the safety of the launch.  Allan McDonald. Roger Boisjoly  The launch was approved by McDonald’s superiors inside Morton Thiokol, under pressure from NASA.

President Reagan quickly appointed a blue-ribbon investigative committee, reportedly telling the chairman to make sure NASA looked good. [1]   When a key witness testified that any internal dissent was resolved prior to launch, McDonald courageously stood up in the back of the hearing room, risking his entire career, and, with shaking hands, stated otherwise.[2]

You can imagine what came next for Allen McDonald and Roger Boisjoly, who were still employed at Morton Thiokol when the hearings occurred. No one wanted to go to work every day and see two living, walking reminders of the worst decision they ever made in their life.

Boisjoly left the company but McDonald stayed on, despite internal animus towards him and being relegated to backwater assignments.

Allen McDonald must have lived the rest of his career at Morton Thiokol feeling alone. Shivering from the isolation and the horror that occurred.  How could he stay at Morton Thiokol – isolated and avoided – and endure?  Why did he stay?

Allen McDonald was a morally resilient man. He knew his values. He knew what data he relied on in making values-based decisions.  And he knew that ethics – the values of a system – are powerfully driven by the culture of an organization, not its written ethics rules.   He valued his job, but he valued his personal, moral decision-making integrity more than his job. He paid a price for it.  But such was his power that his obituary, and Boisjoly’s, inspire people thirty-five years later.

Our healthcare workers and organizations faced a crisis of moral and ethical resiliency during the worst moments of the pandemic. An entity and person may have strong, internal ethical and moral processes but what happens when circumstances overwhelm the capacity of the system and individuals to meet their own ethical and moral standards?  How do they do work which impacts the lives of others when their ability to do so appropriately is compromised by situations beyond their control?

One can leave the situation, like Boisjoly did.  Or stay, like McDonald – but it takes deep personal awareness and resiliency to stay.

For organizations, it involves, a hard and honest look at what values are being compromised and an unyielding determination to immediately return to the prior values when the crisis is over.

Ethical resiliency and moral resiliency are components of ethical wisdom or wellness.  They are also necessary and powerful professional development tools.


[1] Id. McDonald

[2] Id. McDonald

Why Personality Science Tools Will Be with Us Forever

Somewhere along your professional development journey you have likely taken a personality “test” or tool.  Whether it was the DISC, the Birkman, the Hogan, the Enneagram or the long misunderstood Myers-Briggs, people love taking these types of personality tools and learning more about themselves.

Just look your Facebook feed and all the posts from your friends sharing their results of those funny, frivolous “combine the name of the street you grew up on – with your favorite food – plus your age – to see the result” frolics.  FB personality frolics

And it is a good thing people like interacting with these tools (even the silly Facebook ones benefit our brain chemistry if it helps us connect with a friendSocial Media and Oxytocin  While scientists are busy debating which personality science tool has the best scientific grounding or best metrics (yes, personality science is a science) most people are ignoring the scientific debate and happily engaging with the personality tools which resonate with them.

Why?  Because they find the tool helpful!  If a personality tool resonates with a person, it is because it gives them greater clarity and understanding about interpersonal relationships, insight into themselves, and well, gosh darn it, they are just plain fun.  Even while scientists parse and discuss various metrics and uses of personality science tools, there is widespread agreement that:

. . . a relatively small number of personality traits can account for most of the ways in which people differ from one another. Thus, they are related to a wide range of important life outcomes. These traits are also relatively stable, but changeable with effort and good timing. [1]

If you are a company seeking to improve the professional development skills of your team through a personality science tool, yes, focus on the metrics, and also on whether the personality science tool resonates with people in a practical and helpful way.  If the results are too technical or not intuitive to them, the team member may not receive the intended benefit of the tool.

Know also that various tools give various people various information, all of which benefit the workplace if they help your team members gain better understanding of themselves and others.  For example, what I like about the Enneagram, a $12 online personality science tool https://tests.enneagraminstitute.com/ (free from unofficial providers) is its focus on spirituality, something one would not normally associate with the workplace. But a primary goal of the Enneagram is its identification of each person’s subconscious fear. Why is knowing our subconscious fears important?

Psychologists and common sense both tell us that much unethical conduct results from subconscious fear – people are acting out in ways they are not consciously aware of, usually from fear.   The Enneagram, combined with other widely available personality science tools, can arm a person with an array of helpful tools for making better ethics decisions.

So, go ahead and enjoy those fun personality tests.  Here is a fun frolic where you can see which celebrities share your “type.”  https://www.thefamouspeople.com/personality-type.php  (Confession:  I am geeked about being the same personality type as Oprah and Abraham Lincoln!)

Personality science and an individual’s worldview are components of ethical wellness, ethical wisdom and our professional identity.

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/191212142659.htm

What Ted Cruz & Ted Kennedy Teach Us About Human Decision Making Dynamics

One involved a seemingly simple decision to get on a plane and go to Mexico. The other involved the much bigger decision as to why he wanted to be President of the United States.   These decisions did not go well for the very smart and powerful men who made them.

Why?  Because they are human beings.  Human minds and bodies are amazingly intricate, nuanced, and sophisticated.  Yet, all too often, when it comes to “in the moment” decisions when we are not inclined to, or do not have the time to, think something through, the more primitive part of our brain tends to drive the train.

The decisions both “Teds” faced were ethics decisions.  Any decision that impacts another person – or an entity – is an ethics decision. Ethics decisions always involve a balance of competing interests.  In any ethics decision, there is always our own self interest and there is usually one, possibly many more, interests at stake.

Human beings are very good at seeing our own personal interests, but we have to work hard to see competing interests.   For example, an employee may come to work when they are sick, because they are striving for a promotion or believe not calling in sick demonstrates a strong work ethic.  Yet coming to work when they are sick can cause their co-workers to fall ill resulting in needless illness and a significant loss of production for the employer when the other workers call in sick.

We make ethics decisions every day, often unaware that they are actually ethics decisions.  If we are unable to recognize when a situation poses an ethics issue, our decisions will usually be inadequate.

In 1979 Ted Kennedy was preparing to run for President.  His formal announcement was imminent, and he gave, Roger Mudd, a distinguished journalist, an exclusive interview.  Early in the interview, Roger Mudd asked Ted Kennedy “Why do you want to be president?”   The answer was a blank stare and silence for four long seconds.  Until Ted Kennedy stumbled, haltingly, through a rather incoherent answer.  He looked genuinely surprised by the question.  (Question starts at 1.22 minute mark.)  Ted Kennedy Roger Mudd interview. 

It was clear Ted Kennedy could not see the interest every single American had in understanding why he desired unprecedented power over them, and his hands on the levers of government.  Ted Kennedy’s obvious inability to understand the perspective of the American people, coupled with the Chappaquiddick incident, ruined his prospects for the presidency.

Which brings us to Ted Cruz.  We must have a little empathy for Ted Cruz. Who wouldn’t want to escape a deep freeze with no heat and no running water, by going to Mexico?  That is a natural human desire.   And in that moment, his desire to escape the discomfort blinded him to his constituents need for empathy, solidarity and most of all his leadership and action in addressing their suffering.  He himself said about the decision:  “It was obviously a mistake and in hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it,” after he made several attempts at justifying his decision.  Ted Cruz Cancun

We can get better at seeing the competing interests at stake in decisions – with much self awareness and intentional process.  Strong cognitive decision making processes are not only a component of ethical wisdom and wellness, they are also a component of good leadership.

Being skilled at recognizing when an ethics decision is upon us and knowing how to best balance the competing interests is a powerful professional development tool.