I was in college studying math and physics when President Kennedy made his speech challenging us “to achieve in this decade sending men to the moon and returning them safely to the earth.” His speech stopped me in my tracks and led to defining my career goal and my personal dream. I decided then and there that I was somehow going to be a part of that extraordinary initiative.
As destiny would have it, I did join NASA’s Apollo Team and I worked on the program until its successful conclusion. Reflecting on the past fifty years and, especially on this fiftieth anniversary celebration, I realized how much I learned from being a part of Kennedy’s “man to the moon initiative.” I was honored to be a part of accomplishing that extraordinary objective and I continue to practice what I learned during that time.
When Kennedy delivered his challenge to NASA in September 1962 we didn’t have very much of the hardware or software required to accomplish the objective. We needed a Command Module to house the astronauts, a lunar lander to ultimately land the astronauts on the lunar surface, a series of systems to dock two spacecrafts in earth orbit, and all the electronics and propulsions systems. Most critically, we needed a large and powerful booster to lift all that payload into earth’s orbit, which would allow the ultimate “trans lunar insertion” burn sending the Command Module, the Lunar Excursion Module, and the Service Module toward the moon.
I was in Huntsville, Alabama, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center working with Dr. Wernher von Braun on these tasks. He had the responsibility to develop all the propulsion systems needed for the mission and was also responsible for integrating all the mission elements before the decade was out in order to accomplish the objective.
There were life changing lessons learned working with von Braun and the Apollo Team during that time. Von Braun’s leadership style coupled with his technical knowledge and—most importantly—his people skills led to the success of the mission.
Since there were so many elements of the system to develop in parallel, he had to delegate responsibility to each of thirty program element managers and empower them to get their components developed, tested, and accepted. There was no time for micro-management.
Every Monday morning they would meet and each element manager would brief their status. The group collectively solved problems and issues as they arose. Von Braun listened and let the team discuss the solution, which he ultimately approved. Witnessing this taught me a huge lesson on empowerment and leadership. Frankly, without it we would not have accomplished the mission.
There are several business applications here and important leadership lessons learned. In any significant program the overall mission and objective needs to be clear and succinct. Select leaders who have bought into the objective and are passionate about their role. Define individual element goals, empower the element leaders, and time-activate the element’s accomplishment. Avoid micro-management and create a collaborative environment so there’s positive support from all element leaders. And, finally, as the overall program leader, listen to the element leaders and encourage team members to collectively solve problems, which leads to powerful outcomes.
I now have a new dream associated with what I learned during the Apollo days and NASA’s new “Return to the Moon” mission objective. I’m helping to identify excited young entrepreneurs and companies that can internalize this new vision and dream and who can potentially support NASA in accomplishing these bold new international space exploration initiatives that will improve life on earth for all of humanity.
What are your thoughts on our returning to the moon? What has been your experience working with an empowering and motivating leader? Feel free to leave a comment below.