Space History | 1961-05-25 | Kennedy’s Vision: The Moon

May 25, 1961 – Washington, D.C. –  In a speech to a joint session of Congress, John F. Kennedy outlines his vision for American Human Spaceflight, and gives us a goal – that before this decade is out, to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.

Kennedy presents his vision for Americans to reach for the Moon - May 25, 1961

Kennedy presents his vision for Americans to reach for the Moon – May 25, 1961

This is the first of the Seven Forgotten Leadership Lessons of the Space Race: Vision. The first step to becoming a leader is to be able to have and cast your vision

Vision is the first and most obvious lesson from the Space Race. How powerful are the right words.

With just a few words, John F. Kennedy changed the course of human events and moved an entire nation to join the journey with him.

Those few words encouraged 400,000 engineers, scientists and others to labor for the better part of a decade to send just twenty-four men to orbit the moon and to have a mere twelve actually walk on it. All of that effort (and funding) came about because of one man’s vision.

Kennedy with von Braun at Cape Canaveral

Kennedy with von Braun at Cape Canaveral

Many people in aerospace today are working in that industry because of the lingering hope that’s still alive in Kennedy’s words. I’ve noticed that most aerospace engineers can recite the vision that Kennedy gave us – and some of those people weren’t even alive when he spoke those words! Yet that single compelling vision moved us all in a way no other force can.

Vision touches us and gives us the opportunity to own the dream with the leader who casts the vision. It gives us a meaning – a connection and a purpose – that drives us towards the goal. Their vision becomes our vision.

But without vision, even aerospace work becomes just a job. NASA flight director Gene Kranz took note of that in his book, Failure is not an Option:

“Approaching the end of Apollo, my frustration often surfaced. No one in America seemed to care that we were giving up, surrendering the future of the next generation of young people with stars in their eyes…. How I wished John F. Kennedy were still alive, challenging us to dare and to dream. I feel the same way today; the boldness and scope of his vision is not to be found today in our space program and in our nation.” (Kranz 2000)

Today’s “Vision Statement” – a Lesson in Contrast

In contrast, examine what passes today for having vision. If you have been around American businesses lately, you have probably had the unfortunate experience of having to participate in creating a “vision statement.”

Kennedy Casts his Vision for Space at Rice Univ. - "We choose to go to the Moon"

Kennedy Casts his Vision for Space at Rice Univ. – “We choose to go to the Moon”

The scene probably looked like this: the manager of your department (who is probably motivated by being freshly back from some “leadership” seminar) has the idea of getting everyone together to form a common vision statement. He corrals everyone into a room with a whiteboard, and for hours you talk about developing a “vision” for your department or company.

Having a vision is certainly a great idea. It’s important to have a vision for where a group of people is going, but the manager of today implements it poorly. No one in the history of developing a vision has ever successfully produced a compelling vision by having everyone stand around a white board while managers spout ridiculous tripe about how “we are the best team” or “we put customers first” or even more horrifically, some made-up slogan about how we are the best people doing the best job, and so that should motivate us.

If you have ever endured this process you know exactly what I am talking about. And for some reason, the management belief is that if we include everyone and take (lots of) time to develop our vision carefully, then we will have a team who is on-board, highly motivated and ready to go!

Managers are somehow immune to how ridiculous this process really is, and how in the long run it de-motivates. Many comic strips and websites are devoted to pointing out just how silly this type of thinking is. Perhaps the hearts of those managers are in the right place, and they have just got an incorrect idea about what constitutes real vision.

Here is the single biggest problem with writing a vision statement that includes everyone. There is a mathematical term for taking the sum of all and dividing by the number of participants – “average.” If everyone has a say, you get average results. You never end up with a vision by going through this process. You end up with the same group of people you started with – only now they are also confused.

Management recognizes the need for vision, which is good. But their methods are terrible. So what can the Space Race teach us about the first forgotten lesson?

More on this topic in a subsequent post.

Excerpted from Abandon in Place – The Seven Forgotten Leadership Lessons of the Space Race

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