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Apollo 11’s Transcendent Leadership Lessons

To paraphrase Walter Cronkite, it was, and remains to this day, the greatest adventure in the history of mankind.

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing says much about the capability of our country, the miracles of science and engineering and the commitment of the NASA team. But it also offers important lessons on leadership, which are as relevant today as they were in July, 1969.

These are leadership lessons that transcend time and circumstance, which corporate executives and board members may well want to consider as they commemorate this great event.

Lesson #1: Visions Can Come True. JFK’s memorable 1962 “Moon Speech” set forth the vision of Apollo. It included the famous “…because it is hard” acknowledgment, and the equally inspiring charge that “…to do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.” Some 57 years later, vision, boldness and the motivation they generate in others remain essential tools by which leaders take organizations to great heights. Their absence can create insurmountable barriers to growth.

Lesson #2: Teamwork Matters. The three Apollo 11 astronauts were not close friends. They had different personalities. Armstrong was emotionally remote. Aldrin acerbic and abrasive. Collins more “happy go lucky.” But they made it work; they interacted successfully under the most extreme circumstances. For leaders don’t need to be BFFs with their colleagues in order to be effective. They do, however, need to be accepting and respectful of who their colleagues are, and the contributions they offer.

Lesson #3: Confidence. They believed in their systems in spite of the risks: the Saturn V liftoff, the LM ascent engine firing, trans-earth injection, the re-entry and splashdown. Even at NASA’s famous 99.9% reliability standard, much could still go wrong. Yet they moved forward in reliance on confidence in the technical competency of the workforce and the efforts to remove risk from the conceptual design. Where leaders can establish an organizational commitment to quality, safety and risk management, managers can more comfortably implement even the most aggressive of products.

Lesson #4: We Need The Michael Collinses. It was not for Collins to land on the moon. It was for him to orbit the moon in solitude, waiting/hoping for the return of Armstrong and Aldrin from the lunar surface. His glory would be less; history would not treat him nearly as prominently. And he was good with it. Indeed, every organization needs leaders content to do their job, who are willing to be part of a larger effort and not likely to complain or worry about more glamorous tasks being assigned to others.

Lesson #5: Command Decisions Count. The legend is indeed the fact. Armstrong really did land the Lunar Module, manually, with just 16 seconds of fuel remaining. Aborting the descent was not an option. Like all good leaders, Armstrong was in charge. He knew the terrain. He knew his machine. He knew the stakes and he was going to get the job done. The absolute ultimate command decision. Leaders who “sit in the left seat” must be prepared to “make the call,” to make the most difficult of decisions, often in the most trying of circumstances.

Lesson #6: Encourage Ideas. It wasn’t store-bought. There wasn’t a model or prototype. The enormous “crawler” that transported the Saturn V from the Vehicle Assembly Plant to the launchpad was the brainchild of a member of the launch operations team, whose name is now lost to history. He reportedly got the idea from watching the strip-mining process. Ingenuity and creativity often have wildly diverse parentage, and smart leaders will encourage ideas from all elements of the workforce, starting with the mailroom and continuing up the ladder.

Lesson #7: “Code 1202” Events. It was the Apollo version of a “black swan.” On final lunar descent, an unusual program alarm (code 1202) flashed, indicating a problem with the guidance computer. With the landing in balance, a young control officer in Houston, familiar with the code from earlier simulations, provided the critical “go on that alarm” assurance. No company is immune to a Code 1202 event. The unforeseeable will occur. But leadership can set expectations concerning risk evaluation that will help the company respond in crisis situations.

Lesson #8: It Takes A Village. A very big village, in fact. The Apollo project team was estimated at over 300,000 people. It was an amazing partnership between the government, private industry and the astronauts—and, ultimately the American public. And on their final flight transmission, the Apollo astronauts paid a humble video tribute to that partnership. Effective leadership recognizes that success often requires a combination of management vision and workforce commitment. Rarely is it one or the other, and almost never “just about me.”

Lesson #9: Learn from Mistakes. The great success of Apollo 11 was made possible in large part by the tragic failure of Apollo 1. That catastrophe forced NASA to confront its culture of complacency for risk and safety, and to restructure its entire operations. Indeed, great lessons can be learned from failure as well as success; from accepting responsibility for non-performance and moving forward from there. Even on the largest possible scale, leaders never stop learning-even from their own (or their organization’s) mistakes.

Lesson #10: Otherworldly Commitment. Armstrong attributed Apollo’s success to its nature as “a project in which everybody involved was…interested…involved…and fascinated by the job they were doing.” (“Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon” by Craig Nelson (Penguin, 2009) In today’s business environment, when leaders are increasingly focused on workforce culture and satisfaction, major initiatives are more likely to succeed when employees, like the Apollo team, are motivated “to [do] their job a little better than they have to.”

There is an understandable tendency to marginalize important events that happened long ago. Men in a spaceship—how interesting, but of course it was long ago, and we’ve progressed so much since then. It’s hardly relevant to our world today. But as to Apollo 11, that would be a huge mistake; it still matters, very much so.

In his Farewell Address to the nation, President Reagan spoke to the lasting value of the American heritage. He warned of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” And, one might add, of what we are capable of achieving, as a nation, as individuals—and as organizations. That’s the transcendent lesson of Apollo 11. And it’s a lesson that is meaningful in the boardroom, and the executive suite.

I wish to acknowledge “Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon” by Craig Nelson (Penguin, 2009) as a resource in the preparation of this post.

Follow me on LinkedIn. Check out my website.

I am a partner in the Chicago office of international law firm McDermott Will & Emery and earned my law degree at Northwestern University. I represent corporations (and their officers and directors) in connection with governance, corporate structure, fiduciary duties, officer-director liability issues, charitable trust law and corporate alliances. Over the course of my 39-year career, I have served as outside governance counsel to many prominent national corporations. I speak and write on a range of emerging trends and issues in corporate governance to help leaders understand the implications and how they might be relevant to their own circumstances. Writing is a passion of mine and I do my best writing on the porch of my home in Michigan.

Source: Apollo 11’s Transcendent Leadership Lessons

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