We lost a true hero this weekend when test pilot, engineer, astronaut, and self-admitted geek Neil Armstrong passed away at 82. I am of the generation that revered the small group of men that braved riding controlled explosions into Earth’s orbit and beyond. I still vividly remember sitting in our living room in Tampa, Florida watching the countdown for Apollo 11, wishing I was there to see it, and feeling the thrill when that mighty Saturn V rocket lit up and left the launch pad. I ran outside and was able to see the bright matchstick and brilliant white contrail that marked that historic ascent. Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, and Michael Collins fueled the dreams of a generation, and even today I would gladly jump at the chance to take the same ride!
America’s program to reach the moon provides some great lessons for managers at every level.
It tells us that we need great people – committed people – to be successful. President Kennedy provided the challenge and deadline that motivated literally thousands of people towards a common goal – reaching the moon in less than a decade. They had a clear plan to reach that goal – do we know and understand what our strategic goals are? Are we, and are our teams committed to reaching them?
The disaster of Apollo 1, when astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee were killed in a fire in the capsule taught a terrible lesson. It’s important to have a goal but it is equally important to understand and address potential risk. Just as critical is knowing that problems and roadblocks are inevitable, and rather than letting that terrible day derail the project, they regrouped, fixed the problem, and moved on after applying those lessons to their future endeavors. As managers, we probably are not dealing with life or death, but we can certainly emulate NASA’s approach – understand the risks, prepare for them, and adjust the process as we learn important lessons.
Finally, all of the astronauts clearly recognized that they were not able to reach the goal of the moon on their own. There was a great crowd of motivated people behind them, from the actual rocket scientists who made the ships fly to the guys behind the parts counter to the huge support staff that managed the building facilities, the cafeterias, and kept the offices clean and safe. They regularly recognized the efforts of all of their team, and that’s probably the most important lesson we can learn from the space program. We cannot be successful as a manager on our own. It’s not enough that we know we have a great team – we need to regularly, and publicly, acknowledge that we could not be successful without them.
RIP Mr. Armstrong, you’ll be missed but you’ll never be forgotten.