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Second Mountain First

Jim Mahoney Teaching

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time. It is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” – Sydney Harris

Columnist David Brooks suggests life is of two mountains. The first mountain in his metaphor is to be successful, create your identity, and be happy. People often get knocked off that mountain he suggests by perhaps a health scare, a scandal, or some other life altering event. Some don’t get derailed but all long for a second mountain as he calls it. This one is about contribution while the first one often focuses on acquisition. The further adds that on this second mountain, people make a commitment to something—perhaps family, faith, or community. Something besides ego, money, power, or success.

While I admire Brooks much, I suggest maybe a leadership lesson might be to climb the second mountain first. What would you walk over hot coals for? Risk losing everything for? Consider my nominee for the second mountain first award. It is Allen McDonald who passed away early this month at age 83.

McDonald was thrust, as NPR called it in a recent story, into history on January 27, 1986. He directed the booster rocket project for NASA contractor Morton Thiokol. He was at the Kennedy Space Center to approve or disapprove a launch if something came up. McDonald refused to sign off on the launch of the Challenger that morning. According to NPR, he explained his reticence for the launch because of freezing overnight temperatures possibly compromising the booster rocket joints, ice forming at the launch pad, and a difficult forecast for the recovery site. He was clear to the folks at NASA and his bosses. He refused to sign off, but his protests were overruled.

Twelve days later, he was sitting as he described it “in the cheap seats” at a closed presidential commission investigating the tragedy. He listened to testimony suggesting Thiokol had some concerns but signed off on the launch to NASA, which his bosses did after pressure from NASA to do so. McDonald spoke up from the back, “Thiokol was so concerned we recommended not launching below 53 degrees. And we put that in writing and sent to NASA.” He was invited to come forward and say that again. Put your head around this example of truth to power.

McDonald was demoted by Thiokol, but Congress introduced a resolution forbidding Thiokol to punish McDonald or any of the other engineers who spoke freely or risk never getting another contract.  McDonald finished an excellent career there. He had climbed his second mountain. He had met the moment with courage, resolve, and integrity. He wrote a book after retiring in 2001 about the tragedy.

Here is my leadership lesson lived by McDonald and authored by him this way: “It is always, always do the right thing for the right reason at the right time with the right people. And you have no regrets for the rest of your life.”