Op-ed | Apollo is a lesson in leadership that continues to inspire and educate
This op-ed originally appeared in the July 16, 2019 special Apollo 11 at 50 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of one of mankind’s greatest achievements, the moon landing by Apollo 11, and the leadership it took to make that feat possible.
The story of the Apollo program, the many heroes in the headlines and those behind-the-scenes, the upprecedented crisis and tragedies that were overcome to fulfill a martyred President’s bold promise, is a story as compelling as any great novel or Greek myth.
We learn through storytelling. For the past six years, the saga of the people and challenges behind Apollo have been the cornerstone of an immersive leadership seminar created by my company, and now a new book. Our workshops have taken senior managers from over 100 Fortune 500 companies to Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston to learn how to inspire, lead and recalibrate in times of crisis, all by modeling the work of the remarkable people behind Apollo’s success.
The Apollo story dawns with the first of its many leader/heroes, John F Kennedy, a President who announced an audacious plan to reach the moon within 10 years. His 1962 speech at Rice University which laid out the vision is the model of brevity, simplicity, ethos and power. It serves as the template for today’s popular TED talks.
When the story opens, America is the decided underdog. We are beat into space by the Soviet’s Sputnik satellite. Then we’re outpaced again when they launch the first living thing, the dog Laika, and yet again when Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to orbit the Earth. In these early days, America does seem to be leader in one thing – producing live television footage of rockets exploding shortly after takeoff!
In short order, America would have its successes and heroes, like the charismatic, Midwestern family man/astronaut John Glenn and the deeply intriguing and ever adaptable Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun proved a far-seeing model of leadership in many ways. First, it was by reading the tea leaves as WWII wound down to secure safe passage for himself and 100 of his fellow German scientists to America. That group would form the nucleus of the Huntsville team in righting America’s ailing rocket propulsion program. Von Braun was also a fascinating example of the media-savvy leader. He used the press to reposition himself from enemy combatant to proponent of peaceful space exploration and then to the ubiquitously publicized technical guru behind NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Von Braun can serve as an example for today’s tech leaders through his T-shaped Management style. He was deep in his technical field (the stem of the T), but also broad in his thinking across many fields. He could scan the environment beyond his technical expertise to understand the political, societal and economic trends. This ensured his success by anticipating alternative pathways when problems arose.
Apollo also serves as a model leadership lesson in handling Tame versus Wicked Problems, a phrase coined shortly after the moon landing in 1973 by Rittel and Webber.
With Tame Problems, you can draw upon past experiences to help find solutions. You’ve seen the problem (or something like it) before, so you know what to do. Wicked Problems are unprecedented. Often involving many levels and factors hence unfaced. Challenges like the Deep Water Horizon oil spill or climate change are examples.
NASA faced a series of wicked problems. One of the first was the devastatingly fire that took the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts. Here, our seminar attendees encounter another model leader/hero, George Low. Low took a demotion to champion the redesign the Apollo capsule. But, he did more than fix the cause of the fire. He instituted over 400 improvements in the capsule design, only 40 of which dealt with the fire. Great leaders are often masters at adapting and reframing. Because of the Apollo 1 fire, the whole space program was two years behind schedule. Low ensured the continuance and ultimate success of the then heavily questioned Apollo program by adapting the missions to accommodate the delayed Lunar Lander. He got America “first to the moon” with the non-landing Apollo 8 on Christmas 1968.
Perhaps Apollo’s greatest example of “wicked leadership” that pulled success out of failure came with Apollo 13. The remarkable calm of Glynn Lunney and teamwork-driven ingenuity of Gene Kranz saved the day, and the crew. That story also launched both a best-selling book and award-winning movie.
From the leadership standpoint, Apollo is also noteworthy as an example of integration. First off, it was a model of collaboration between the public and private sectors, a mission that would’ve been nowhere without the work of Grumman, Northrup, Boeing, etc., as well as a host of government, military nonprofit and university institutions.
NASA was also one of the first large organizations that brought opportunities to people who maybe hadn’t enjoyed them before. This included foreigners like Von Braun and his team and minorities, such as the four African-American women mathematicians chronicled in the book and film, Hidden Figures. Like today’s tech giants, NASA also valued and placed huge responsibility in the hands of young talent, as evidenced by 24 being the average age of the Mission Control team during the Apollo 11 moon landing. This integration was an example of the best in America, welcoming talent from all over the world, from every corner of society, to achieve greatness.
One of the most important model leaders in the Apollo story is Jim Webb. Webb was a finance expert. He doubted his own ability to lead NASA and tried to turn down the job of Chief Administrator, due to his lack of hard technical knowledge. But, when he had no choice but to accept LBJ’s dictum, the ego-free Webb compensated for his own perceived knowledge gap by creating “The Triad,” a three-person governing body. The Triad team included himself, his more techsavvy predecessor Hugh Dryden and, for large scale organizational expertise, former RCA COO Robert Seamans. These three men ran all of NASA’s major decisions by consensus and collaboration for seven years. They put America on the moon. A good business leader also works to squeeze extra value out of every dollar invested. Webb did this by insisting the private companies he provided large contracts to support American education. He required that they hire research departments at institutions like MIT and Purdue. These grants and contracts served to fund the infrastructure of educational institutions across the country.
For 30 years, I have devoted my life to teaching senior executives lessons of leadership, first at companies like IBM and ITT, then at The Conference Board and, for six years, as founder of Experience to Lead. Our company offers unique, immersive experiences that take senior business executives to sites, like the battlefields of Gettysburg and Normandy and the U.S. Airways’ “Miracle of the Hudson” plane, on which I was a passenger, to absorb lessons designed to improve their leadership skills.
Our Apollo Leadership Program came about by serendipity, when we were looking to expand beyond our Gettysburg and Normandy programs with another compelling story of leadership.
When we approached NASA with the idea, they directed us to one of their own, Matthew Gray, who, by chance, had attended one of our Gettysburg workshops. Gray became instrumental in supporting us as we developed the program, which lasts three days and takes attendees to the Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston, the adjacent museum that both preserves important artifacts and encourages the study of science and math by children.
As NASA is a federal agency prohibited by ethical code from promoting itself in such as way, our program has served to highlight the great successes of Apollo, to some of the business world’s most influential movers and shakers, ones who can help return our national focus to space exploration.
Even after three days in workshops absorbing this story, business leaders asked for more, hence our decision to put the story, and more, into book form. My book, “Apollo Leadership Lessons: Powerful Business Insights for Executives,” is just what is advertised – a look at how leaders, on all levels and in many corners of NASA, helped mankind reach what still stands, 50 years on, as our greatest technological and collaborative achievement.
Dick Richardson is the founder and CEO of Experience to Lead and author of Apollo Leadership Lessons (Authority Publishing).