Tindallgrams: The frank memos of Apollo’s unsung genius
David Freund, Chief Leadership Officer
Last week I wrote about leaders being a catalyst within their organizations. As a refresher, I have included Merriam-Webster’s and Google’s definitions of catalyst below.
Merriam-Webster: an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action
Google: a person or thing that precipitates an event
A couple of weeks ago, I heard an amazing description of a man named Bill Tindall, “The center of activity but never the center of attention.” Howard Wilson “Bill” Tindall, Jr. was born in 1925 and was an aerospace engineer. Bill earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Brown University and took a job at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Bill was appointed Chief of Apollo Data Priority Coordination during the Apollo program. In this role, Bill chaired meetings between astronauts, mission controllers, design engineers, contractors, and other relevant parties, adjudicating disagreements and overseeing the details of planning mission techniques. Bill was truly a catalyst for NASA. In a time when information was coming from every direction, Bill was able to sit through a meeting, ask probing questions, and write a summary that people actually looked forward to reading.
It started in 1966 when Bill was sent to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to help get them back on schedule. He found a lot of brilliant people working on the Apollo software project, but they were falling further and further behind. In Bill’s words, the software project was “the most pacing item for the Apollo flights.” After sitting through several meetings, Bill started writing very frank memos related to the problems and possible solutions. After getting MIT back on track, he moved on to lead the planning of all “mission techniques” for Apollo. These memos became known as Tindallgrams and are very much a part of the lore at NASA. One such memo was titled “Vent bent descent, lament.”
Tindall was a catalyst for greater thinking at NASA. He wasn’t a positional leader but rather a leader who made other people better. He helped people make better decisions. Flight Director Gene Kranz put it best, “If there should have been a lunar plaque left on the Moon from somebody in Mission Control or Flight Control – it should have been for Bill Tindall. Tindall was the guy who put all the pieces together, and all we did is execute them.”
Leaders like Bill are the center of activity but never the center of attention. Their leadership is always about others and how they can add value to the team. If you would like to hear more on this topic, please join Marisa Norcross and me for episode 244 of The Next Page podcast as we look into the skills needed to be a leader like Bill.