Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before

I felt like Elder Oaks’ address from General Conference, “Loving Others and Living with Differences,” was fantastic. And heavy. And a little biting, especially if you’re one of those dweebs who doesn’t let their kids play with other kids who aren’t members of the Church.

(I mean, seriously?…)

Dang it. I just lost the “is it I?” game, deep diving into my second General Conference talk. Crap.

I feel like there’s so much in there that I’ll need to “noodle” over, but one of the heaviest parts of Elder Oaks’ talk, in my view, is the discussion about contention. “Contention” can mean a great many things to a great many people, which is what makes discussion about it so slippery. Before we look more into clues that help us see how Elder Oaks’ understands “contention,” let me tell you a story.

The Challenger

The Challenger spacecraft, launched on 28 January 1986, was destroyed when it broke up and exploded just under two minutes into liftoff.

This disaster is absolutely tragic, and in the days and months following the disaster, a presidential commission investigated exactly what caused the destruction of the spacecraft. What they found is gut-wrenching, and fascinating.

First, the science.

At a “40,000-foot” level, there were three main parts to the spacecraft – the Challenger shuttle itself, the external tank which fueled the Challenger’s main engines, and the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) found on either side of the external tank. The design of the SRBs is at the heart of the disaster.

ChallengerThe SRB is not one solid piece. Actually, it’s made up of several different pieces. These pieces were joined together in using a tang and clevis joint.

Solid Rocket BoosterAs you can imagine, there is a great deal of energy generated during liftoff – we’re talking about controlled explosions on a massive scale – and this energy causes a great deal of vibration. O-rings, built into each SRB joint, were used in order to maintain joint-integrity amidst this tremendous output of energy. This is a cross section of the SRB.

SRB Aft Field JointYou can see how the O-rings helped maintain the integrity of the joint. Each SRB contained, of course, rocket fuel (the cross-stitched area above). As liftoff occurred and the spacecraft vibrated, the O-rings would expand and contract as needed to keep that fuel contained.

In the Challenger disaster, the pressure seal of the aft field joint, enabled by the O-rings, did not function as designed. Pressurized hot gasses, and eventually flames, were allowed to “blow by” the O-ring seal and escape through the joint. This damaged the external tank, causing structural failure and, ultimately, the explosion that destroyed the spacecraft.

Black smoke started to appear around the aft field joint right after SRB ignition.

Black smoke right after ignition.

A minute later, the spacecraft exploded. The crew compartment, still intact and likely containing still-living astronauts, fell back to earth for almost another 3 minutes before hitting the ocean at just over 200 mph.

That’s absolutely horrific.

But that’s not the end of the story. That’s simply the science behind what happened. Read what the presidential commission identified as the overarching issue that allowed the O-ring problem in the first place.

Testimony reveals failures in communication that resulted in a decision to launch [the Challenger]  based on incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers” (emphasis mine).

You see, at least part of the O-ring failure was attributed to the cold temperatures. The ambient temperature at the time of launch was 36 degrees, 15 degrees lower than any previous launch. The temperature around the aft field joint (which was in the shade away from the sun) was estimated to be 28 degrees +/- 5 degrees. The joint opposite, which did not fail, was in the sunlight where the estimated temperature was 50 degrees.

This is important because O-ring performance had been linked to it’s temperature. A warm O-ring that has been compressed will return to its original shape when relieved much quicker than will a cold O-ring. In fact, a compressed O-ring at 75 degrees Fahrenheit is five times more responsive in returning to its uncompressed shape than a cold O-ring at 30 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, it is probable that the O-rings in the right SRB aft field joint were not following the opening of the gap between the tang and clevis at time of ignition.

Want to know something else?

This was not a surprise. There were concerns about this. In fact, engineers responsible for building the SRB tried as late as the night before the launch to delay.

In August, 1972, Morton Thiokol Corporation was awarded the contract (by NASA) for the Solid Rocket Boosters. Before the launch, a number of engineers recommended that the launch be delayed or cancelled because of concerns surrounding the O-ring design and response. Originally, MT management backed their engineers, but they had significant push back from NASA reps, including George Hardy and Lawrence Mulloy. There had already been numerous (and costly) delays, and there were also funding pressures that concerned NASA – the cold war was over, after all. NASA had already been forced to make difficult decisions about where to allocate resources. Yet if NASA could put a teacher in space, some of that pressure might be alleviated with the resulting positive attention.

This is why, the night before the launch, when MT engineers advocated for a delay, NASA representatives pushed back, and pushed back hard. Hardy said,

“I am appalled. I am appalled by your recommendation.”

And, with a bite of sarcasm, Mulloy said,

“My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch – next April?”

The employees of MT asked for a short recess from the late-night conference call. Jerald Mason, a senior executive, told manager Joe Kilminster,

“Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”

Kilminster then rewrote the recommendation to delay.

The team’s avoidance of conflict led to the destruction of the Challenger, and the death of everyone on board.

Productive Conflict

I won’t take you too far into the principles behind productive conflict (there is such a thing!), even though I want to. I could write probably 2,000 more words. But I won’t.

Because I love you all too much for that.

I will say two things, though. First, there is an optimal level of conflict. It’s true that the optimal level is not “a ton of conflict,” but it’s also true that the optimal level is not “no conflict whatsoever.”

Level of ConflictSome conflict is actually essential if we are to be as successful as possible!

After recognizing that conflict can have a positive influence, we need to make sure that we engage in the right kind of conflict. In a general sense, there are five conflict behaviors. These depending on your assertiveness (attempts to satisfy your own concerns because you care more about the issue) and cooperativeness (attempts to satisfy the other party’s concerns because you care more about the relationship).

Conflict BehaviorsEach of these styles has a time and a place (that’s something we won’t get into here), though in general, if you have the time and resources, compromise and collaboration will get you the best results.

These two principles end up being a simple, yet reliable model when it comes to organizational performance. It looks like this;

Approaching ConflictWhy “warp speed”? Well, because this model bares an uncanny resemblance to another notable spacecraft.

Make it so.
Make it so.

Coincidence? I think not.


How can I say that conflict is productive while at the same time the Savior says,

“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away(see 3 Nephi 11:28–30, emphasis added).

In short, I think that they’re different things. It all hinges on being able to disagree without being disagreeable, to “add light, not heat” as the saying goes.

What are some characteristics of the spirit of contention?

Just now, the Savior has pointed out anger, and Elder Oaks reads from Proverbs about how “wise men turn away wrath(Proverbs 29:8, emphasis added). Elder Oaks further teaches,

The early Apostles taught that we should “follow after the things [that] make for peace(Romans 14:19) and “[speak] the truth in love(Ephesians 4:15), “for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God(James 1:20). In modern revelation the Lord commanded that the glad tidings of the restored gospel should be declared “every man to his neighbor, in mildness and in meekness(D&C 38:41), with all humility, reviling not against revilers(D&C 19:30).”

As a demonstration of this principle, and highlighting how “we must not compromise or dilute our commitment to the truths we understand,” Elder Oaks teaches,

“The Savior showed the way when His adversaries confronted Him with the woman who had been “taken in adultery, in the very act” (John 8:4). When shamed with their own hypocrisy, the accusers withdrew and left Jesus alone with the woman. He treated her with kindness by declining to condemn her at that time. But He also firmly directed her to “sin no more” (John 8:11). Loving-kindness is required, but a follower of Christ—just like the Master—will be firm in the truth”  (emphasis added).

And finally, when speaking on public discourse, Elder Oaks says that

we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbor and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs. Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious. We should be wise in explaining and pursuing our positions and in exercising our influence. In doing so, we ask that others not be offended by our sincere religious beliefs and the free exercise of our religion. We encourage all of us to practice the Savior’s Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12)(emphasis added).

These are far from universal condemnations about disagreeing with others. There’s much still to ponder on for each of us regarding this balance of being bold, but not overbearing (see Alma 38:12). Still, the answer is not, in any way, to simply cease our engagement in a discussion of controversial issues. Conflict can be productive, and the gospel does not teach us to shy away from it. Rather, it teaches us to engage in it in the same manner the Savior would and to love others as the Savior loved them, which, as Elder Oaks admits, “is probably our greatest challenge.”

Is It I?

Can I probably stand to be a little less contentious? Absolutely. Can I improve the way I critique ideas and positions? Absolutely.

In fact, President Eyring (in a talk I’ll hopefully study in this same way), referring to counsel in Doctrine and Covenants 121, says,

“The word increase has special meaning in preparing priesthood holders when they need correction. The word suggests an increase of a love that was already there. The “showing forth” is about the increase. Those of you who are preparing priesthood holders will certainly see them make mistakes. Before they receive your correction, they must have felt of your love early and steadily. They must have felt your genuine praise before they will accept your correction” (emphasis added).

I need to do that better, and maybe even hold back some criticism I wouldn’t have hesitated to offer before.

There is so much more in Elder Oaks’ talk to think deeply about – the need to be in the world, and the nods to being salt and light; whether there is a distinction between policies enacted by powerful judges as opposed to “the voice of the people,” a Book of Mormon phrase Elder Oaks referenced; what true Christ-like love is really like (a question I wrote about around last General Conference after Elder Holland’s talk “The Cost – and Blessings – of Discipleship”); the distinction between behaviors made “in dedicated spaces” vs “public discourse”; and that’s just for starters!

For now, I’ll wish you luck as each of you find your own way to honor the covenant made by every member of the Church, and effectively balance the manner you stand as a witness while still comforting those that stand in need of comfort (see Mosiah 18:9).


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