Aim for the moon
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Famous words that perfectly sum up the ambition, triumph and optimism of the first moon landing. Stephen Walker looks back at those days to see what modern leaders can learn from the audacious challenge the US set for itself in the race for the moon.
The media has lately been full of archive reports of the lunar landing on 21 July 1969, reminding us of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.
“That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” has become a catchphrase and it is easy to forget the significance of the human race’s first footfall on another planetary body.
The nationality of the first foot was American but in the early 1960s the Russians had the lead in the Space Race. Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth on April 12 1961. The story of how the US overtook the Russians in the race to the Moon illustrates the power of leadership to make dramatic, even fundamental changes to the path of human endeavour.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower supported the creation of NASA and the Mercury space programme following the Russian launch of Sputnik. But President John F Kennedy captured the imagination of his nation and gave it a vision that led to the Apollo 11 flight and that historic step.
It is difficult in the 21st century to realise how vast an undertaking this was. In terms of financial cost, technological advancement and human bravery the Apollo mission to land a man on the Moon could justly be described as the first man-made wonder not of this world.
President John F Kennedy provided the leadership which gave birth to the 10-year mission. At the time there were, as always, many claims on resources but the vision, the strategic goal of a Moon landing had the good wishes of the majority of the American electorate for that time.
Kennedy’s speeches starting in May 1961 to Congress are inspirational: "First, 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 back 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."
The speech calls on national pride and engenders a desire to be part of the project. By 1962 the goal is so well known the President Kennedy could afford to show a little hubris in his speeches: "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
As a strategic goal, defined as “....this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the earth”, it is hard to beat.
Today though toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century there is a need for strong leadership and inspirational goal setting to rebuild the injured economies around the world. Each organisation, each business has been affected by the Banking crisis. We have all run for cover and tried to wait out the recessionary times.
There are signs of improvements in the economy, each sector faces different timings and challenges of course. The organisations that look back in 2020 on their last 10 successful years will point to this time as the birth of their new strategic direction.
Where are the leaders who will inspire us in this new decade of struggle and growth? Obviously most of them already work in those organisations, just biding their time.
Those at the top of their organisation have probably spent the last year cutting costs, cutting people and trimming back projects. It will be hard for those same people to create a vision of the future that will inspire people to work to achieve it: to inspire people to give that discretionary effort which makes such a tremendous difference. In particular it will be hard to convince people of the validity of your vision. The credibility of those in charge has taken a huge nose dive as tales of greed and incompetence are frantically spun out by the media.
Where are our leaders of stature and vision who will point the way? What do they have to do to make us hear?
The political ones are easier to spot: President Obama’s “Yes we can” may look like the birth of a revolution from a 2020 perspective.
I want to see every board, every governing body look to its strategic goals for the next decade. Design an inspiring goal – a big hairy audacious goal as James Collins and Jerry Porras put it – and communicate it well. In fact communicate it over and over again until all your people know it and the majority are inspired by it, and adopt it as one of their own life goals.
The holiday season is a time to escape the daily pressures for a while, time to reflect, to dream and be ready to make a difference in September when we return to work.
Yes, together we can make a difference.
After over 30 years of hands on business and academic experience, Stephen Walker co-founded Motivation Matters in 2004. The company is a management consultancy focused on improving people’s desire to perform well at their work. Motivation Matters works with organisations to improve the performance of their people through better management practice.