Command-and-Control Killed this Cosmonaut? Lessons for Our Organizations…


Lean is not a “command and control” leadership and management model. The old command-and-control dynamic leads to so much poor quality and misery in all sorts of industries and organizations – including factories and hospitals.

In a command and control environment, directives flow down from senior leaders (“thou shalt do this”) and bad information tends to not flow upward, due to fear and the threat of punishment for not hitting said goals and targets.

A haunting NPR blog post tells the story about how the Soviet space agency and political leaders sent a Cosmonaut to a certain death in 1967…

In 1967, the Soviets were approaching the 50th anniversary of their revolution. The Americans knew the Soviets wanted to put a man on the moon in 1967 to celebrate this anniversary, as documented in the 1959 American plan to get there first, “Project Horizon” (great reading for space geeks).

The Soviets later decided to do a spacewalk, sending a cosmonaut from one space capsule to another to celebrate their anniversary. I'm guessing somebody was punished for the Soviets having to scale back their 1967 goal. However, engineers and Cosmonauts alike knew that the Soviets were overreaching what was technically possible…

The NPR blog post that tells the story of the doomed cosmonaut is here:  Cosmonaut Crashed Into Earth ‘Crying In Rage

From the piece:

The space vehicle is shoddily constructed, running dangerously low on fuel; its parachutes – though no one knows this -won't work and the cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, is about to, literally, crash full speed into Earth, his body turning molten on impact. As he heads to his doom, U.S. listening posts in Turkey hear him crying in rage, “cursing the people who had put him inside a botched spaceship.”

If the story is to believed (and there are many skeptics), the Soviets sent Komarov up to a certain death because nobody was willing to send bad news up the chain to their leader  Leonid Brezhnev. A crash that's due to a technical problem that couldn't be anticipated is a tragedy. Sending a man up in a capsule that everybody thought was unsafe is murder.

Brezhnev, as top Soviet leader, made a very top-down decision:

It would be, Brezhnev hoped, a Soviet triumph on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Brezhnev made it very clear he wanted this to happen.

How often does something like this happen in organizations, the top-down directive? A hospital middle manger might be told, “You need to open that new unit by June 1, no matter what!” for example.

Command-and-control just sends signals down. Lean leadership and the “Strategy Deployment” process is both “top down AND bottom up” where goals and objectives are checked back and forth, up and down the org chart so people can push back if a goal is not realistic.

Yuri Gargarin, the first Soviet in space, realized there were problems:

The problem was Gagarin. Already a Soviet hero, the first man ever in space, he and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems – serious problems that would make this machine dangerous to navigate in space. The mission, Gagarin suggested, should be postponed.

In a feat of bravery, Gargarin later tried to be the one on the flight, to save his doomed friend and drinking buddy, Komarov.

Nobody was willing to send the bad assessment to Brezhnev:

Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command. Everyone who saw that memo, including Russayev, was demoted, fired or sent to diplomatic Siberia. With less than a month to go before the launch, Komarov realized postponement was not an option. He met with Russayev, the now-demoted KGB agent, and said, “I'm not going to make it back from this flight.”

From the NPR piece:

Once the Soyuz began to orbit the Earth, the failures began. Antennas didn't open properly. Power was compromised. Navigation proved difficult. The next day's launch had to be canceled. And worse, Komarov's chances for a safe return to Earth were dwindling fast.

All the while, U.S. intelligence was listening in. The National Security Agency had a facility at an Air Force base near Istanbul. Previous reports said that U.S. listeners knew something was wrong but couldn't make out the words. In this account, an NSA analyst, identified in the book as Perry Fellwock, described overhearing Komarov tell ground control officials he knew he was about to die. Fellwock described how Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called on a video phone to tell him he was a hero. Komarov's wife was also on the call to talk about what to say to their children. Kosygin was crying.

When the capsule began its descent and the parachutes failed to open, the book describes how American intelligence “picked up [Komarov's] cries of rage as he plunged to his death.”

You can listen to haunting audio of his last minutes on the NPR site.

As one commenter on the NPR site said, “the fear of Brezhnev's pride within the chain of command is what brought disaster.”

What are the dynamics in your organization? Are people allowed to “speak truth to power”? Are leaders still giving top-down “make it happen” mandates? Are they, ironically, doing this in relation to your Lean efforts?

In a similar vein, here is a very early blog post of mine from 2005 commenting on a quote about most business being “Soviet in character.” It's hard to pin the Soviet space disaster on “Soviet” thinking – it was “command-and-control” thinking that, while often associated with Soviet style systems, is sadly part of organizations in many cultures around the world.

Similar dynamics existed in the Challenger disaster, although I don't think you can point to President Reagan as being a direct part of that NASA chain of incompetence and their “broken safety culture” that popped up again with the Columbia disaster as “NASA's habit of relaxing safety standards to meet financial and time constraints” contributed to the disaster.

Does your organization relax safety or quality standards to “meet financial and time constraints”?

The NPR story is an advance look at the upcoming book Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (affiliate link).

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Oh boy, I grew up with this command-and-control culture without even realizing that it was command-and-control culture. Amazing, isn’t it? We (me and uncle Leonid;)) simply did not know any better (or at least did not want to know better). Similarly, I guess, there are senior managers who do not know/want to know any better, so they rely on the good old “well-tried” command and control! Sad but true, this kind of examples are still found in today’s “modern” organizations.

  2. Yup, I live with this culture every day. Although we have a long term Lean plan and a programme for embedding Lean capability the senior management still insist on top down initiatives. They call it ‘Lean by design’. Because it is top down it comes with targets attached. In fact we’ve just been told we’ll have less time to implement initiatives. Why? Presumably to create the impression that we are a go ahead, can-do organisation. What it will likely mean is more of the same botched implementations we have enjoyed in the past as we will be squeezed on the time to gather data and trial initiatives properly. Although there are a few hardy souls out there who will communicate bad news up the chain our culture is still one of massaging stats and working counter-productively to hide the true picture from our masters. Unfortunately this makes the Lean practitioners’ job more difficult since they constantly hear the cry “you can’t do that, it might affect our targets…” Command and control is deeply ingrained in the Civil Service DNA. It will takes years of struggle (or a single seismic event) to remove it.

  3. Here we go again. A program-to-program approach which we all know doesn’t work in the long run! But does a CEO care about “the long run”?… And we are back to managing by numbers as we were so proudly taught in a business school.


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