It's Time to Start Dreaming Again
On September 12, 1962 in a speech at Rice University JFK challenged Americans to embrace Strivership when he said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Kennedy inspired us to dream about what was possible. He challenged us to strive together to achieve a goal that would exceed expectations.
In "Managing America to the Moon: A Coalition Analysis," Henry Lambright describes the long-term national commitment required to put men on the moon and return them to earth safely. "What NASA demonstrated through the Apollo Program," he said, "was that great achievement by government in alliance with the private sector is feasible where leadership is present." The leadership was certainly "present," started at the top with JFK and was sustained by leaders both inside and outside of NASA long enough to implement his goal. Today it's difficult to imagine maintaining momentum for any program beyond the next election cycle!
The main person responsible for "sustaining" leadership was James E. Webb, the Administrator of NASA. Webb confronted NASA's daunting challenge by embracing Strivership. "We didn't feel sure that we could win it, but we felt sure we could compete," he said. In other words although he may have felt confident that a "win" could be achieved, he was focused on striving together, empowering his people to move out of their comfort zones to solve extraordinarily difficult problems…most of which did not yet have solutions!
Webb also empowered his people to strive together as a team. Initially NASA did not know what approach would be used to get to the Moon. As Laimbright describes it, "There were three options. One was called direct ascent, via a gigantic new rocket to be developed, named Nova. A second, called Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR) entailed assembling equipment in the Earth's orbit to go to the Moon. The third, lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR), also involved assembly, but in lunar orbit."
The direct ascent approach was soon eliminated so the contest was between EOR and LOR. Webb allowed the debate to rage. He wanted everyone to contribute to what he knew was the most critical decision the agency faced. He realized that if team members did not contribute and challenge each other they would be robbing their team of learning. At the same time he had their back, as Laimbright reports, by "shielding" them from "political interference and financial instability."
Webb also modeled Strivership. One of the most glaring examples was his display of humility. When he was first offered the position as Administrator of NASA he hesitated saying that he did not feel comfortable heading up the agency because of his lack of expertise in the area of space travel. "It seemed to me someone who knew more about rocketry, about space, would be a better person," Webb said in an interview with the LBJ library. And in 1967 when astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were tragically killed during a test of the Apollo 1 capsule, he presented the findings to congressional committees by placing much of the blame onto himself. "While he was personally tarred with the disaster," Laimbright says, "the space agency's image and popular support was largely undamaged."
What has made our country exceptional is our willingness to embrace Strivership. At key moments in our history leaders have inspired and empowered us to take on challenges that offered no guarantee of success. We not only beat the odds to win our independence, we also strived together to construct the first transcontinental railroad and build an interstate highway system.
This type of commitment seems unimaginable in the results-obsessed, instant gratification world we live in now. We no longer compete. We compare. Instead of venturing into uncharted territory to tackle serious problems we circle the wagons to protect the brand. The impression management industry has become pervasive in education, politics, sports, and business. Image is everything. "How do we look?" seems to always take precedence over "How can we get better?"
To break this cycle we must decide to stop choosing the path of least resistance by pouring resources into image building. Instead of managing the brand our leaders must start leading by embracing Strivership - challenging their people to do things "because they are hard."
Who’s going to step up? The moon landing was 50 years ago! It’s time to start dreaming again.