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The Leadership Vacuum

Rarely do find I find myself getting emotional when it comes to speeches made at industry conferences.

Rarely do find I find myself getting emotional when it comes to speeches made at industry conferences. The usual motivational gibberish foisted upon the audience from an expert standing firmly behind a podium often leaves me yawning and checking my Blackberry repeatedly to see if any new email has arrived that needs my attention-or that can distract my attention. That wasn't the case when I recently attended a conference at Detroit's Cobo Center to hear an address from Gene Kranz, the former director of mission operations at NASA during the famed Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions.

Kranz delivered his speech-I should say "talk"-without any cue cards or teleprompter assistance; he just talked off the cuff about the joys and perils that NASA experienced as it moved in solemn determination on its path to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. It all started when President John F. Kennedy told a joint session on Congress on May 25, 1961: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." Unfortunately for Kranz and the rest of the team at NASA, they had only 20 minutes of total space flight under their belts at the time Kennedy announced NASA's bold new mission. NASA was just three-years old.

Kranz talked about the determination of the young men and women who came together to make sure the U.S. met the goal outlined by the President, no matter the cost in life or machinery. He discussed those who lost their lives in the course of the mission, especially the crew of the Apollo 1-Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee-who became a source of inspiration for the continued progress toward meeting the challenge. Kranz was on the Apollo 11 team that led astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to meet the challenge of landing on the moon and was an integral leader on the infamous Apollo 13 mission, where three astronauts were left in a precarious limbo as their vessel malfunctioned and blew apart in orbit. Kranz told his team "failure was not an option" when it came to saving the Apollo 13 crew. Thankfully, they returned to Earth safely.

When Kranz's talk ended, emotion swelled over me and I stood clapping with pride to honor his courage and determination to help America achieve an important milestone in our history. But then I felt like a ton of bricks had landed on my back as I started wondering: Where has the optimism and determination that once drove our nation gone? Where are the dreamers, the doers who will take our nation to the next level when it comes to innovation? Where are the leaders who will push our nation to excellence? Unfortunately, they have all been missing of late.

There's no doubt that our nation, nor the auto industry, can ignore the realities of today's economic climate, but where's the hope for tomorrow? While it's vital for those at the top to be honest with employees about the challenges facing the auto industry-which are not limited to Detroit's Three-it's also critical that those leaders actually lead their employees toward success. The same should be said for those who are running our country: what excuses their absence at these difficult times when it comes to protecting the most vital sector of our manufacturing base? Do these elected and appointed officials-our so-called "leaders"-not realize that America has to do more than just sell financial securities? Do they not understand that once this economic turmoil passes America will need a new mission to lay the groundwork for the eventual recovery? If our nation fails to rebuild our manufacturing base, we might as well just hand over our economic security to the rest of the world.

What our nation is desperately in need of right now is a vision that outlines where we need to go when it comes to rebuilding our economy and our manufacturing base, one that will spark optimism and hope for everyone, while providing a direction and path of delivery that will return us to the leadership role we once held when it came to building complex products that rivaled the rest of the world. Our leaders should demand that our nation work toward the goal of developing mass-market, high-volume vehicles that can achieve 75 to 100 mpg by 2015 and that we reduce our reliance on foreign sources of energy by 90% in the same timeframe, no matter what the cost. If our nation takes the lead on these two principles, not only will we be able to generate millions of high-wage, high-skilled jobs, we will also be able to lead the rest of the world when it comes to these technologies. It would be nothing less than a game-changer for our economy and the future of our nation's economic well-being. Now is the time for the real leaders to take the podium because "failure is not an option." America's survival depends on it. 

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