On July 21, 1969, I witnessed Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon. In the spirit of full disclosure some 500 million other folks were watching, as well. I can still recall the wonder of it all. In eulogizing Armstrong who died this past weekend, the editors of The Wall Street Journal aptly captured what occurred,
“Even in the current age of constant electronic wizardry, Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon remains a moment of incomparable magic. For those who saw it, not on You Tube but as it happened, the moment will last a life time.”
Individuals far more eloquent than I will speak to Armstrong’s remarkable life. I would like to share one tutorial I took from the man and the moon mission.
For those of you who were not yet with us, it is probably helpful to give a précis of what became known as “the space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the Cold War raging between countries with democraticly elected governments and the communist bloc countries, the space race was a high profile contest that tangentially reflected on the merits of the two forms of government. Consequently the success or failure of the respective space programs carried significant geopolitical ramifications.
On October 4, 1957 the Soviets took an early lead with the dramatic announcement that the first man-made satellite Sputnik was orbiting the Earth. The United States in trying to match the Russian achievement got off to a shaky start. Perhaps shaky is an understatement. To paraphrase the author Tom Wolfe, our rockets almost always crashed. It appeared that America was catching up to the Russians, but in April 1961 they again stunned the world when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, circling the planet and returning safely to earth. In May 1961, Navy Commander Alan Sheppard became the first American in space. In contrast to Gagarin’s feat, Sheppard’s space ride lasted only 15 minutes. Of course, the United States eventually matched the Soviets achievements. But in the midst of all this back and forth something remarkable happened. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy in an address to Congress challenged Americans to put a man on the moon before the close of the decade.
I give this background so you can appreciate just how far America needed to advance its space program in just nine years, to realize President Kennedy’s transformational goal. Distilled to its core, all the effort, genius and national wealth that flowed through our space program was encapsulated into Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Moreover, the generation that took on President Kennedy’s challenge never had its own explorer hero such as a Charles Lindbergh. In 1927 Lindberg became the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. The nation was agog at Lindberg’s courage and daring. But Lindbergh was not “selected” to be a national hero and worldwide celebrity – he volunteered for the job. By contrast, the first person to step on another heavenly body would be selected for the mission. That is the point I would like to focus on – the unerring wisdom in picking Neil Armstrong.
If you think about it, few great explorers where selected for the exploits that followed. Ferdinand II and Isabella of Castile didn’t select Christopher Columbus. They financed Columbus’s first voyage to be sure, but he was the only one to apply for the job. Columbus convinced the monarchs that he could sail to the Far East with a stop in Japan, but no one really knew where he was going, and after four voyages Columbus still didn’t know where he had been!
Clearly, Thomas Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis to lead the Lewis & Clark Expedition. As Jefferson’s aide and personal secretary Jefferson knew Lewis to be highly intelligent and a seasoned outdoorsman. Jefferson knew he could school Lewis in matters such as the collection of scientific information and the other skills necessary to lead the nation’s first transcontinental expedition. But Jefferson, one of humankind’s greatest intellects, knew far less about what the Corps of Discovery would come upon than was known about the moon’s landscape. Since Jefferson could not have known that the Lewis & Clark expedition would rank as the greatest journey of exploration ever to occur in North America, Jefferson was spared the issue of whether Lewis could cope with celebrity.
The moon landing would be different.The person chosen to set foot on the lunar surface would instantly become a personage of immense fame and notoriety. Our national pride, aspirations and the historical memory of this accomplishment would take on the persona of just one man. Fortunately the individuals selecting whose boot would first imprint the lunar soil must have appreciated this sensitive dynamics.
When I consider how Armstrong lived out the fame soaked segment of his life, I am reminded of Sir Edmund Hillary. On May 29, 1953, the New Zealander and the Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay conquered Mount Everest. While Norgay was a god to his people, and voted one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, it is Hillary who is universally viewed as the first man to conquer Mount Everest. But Hillary like Armstrong was an individual of immense humility. They both shunned the intoxicating haze of fame that has drawn in so many souls, often to the point of self-destruction.
In this internet age, we are calloused to what is truly an historical event or accomplishment. If Andy Warhol was still among us, I think his prophesy of personal fame would be whittled down from 15 minutes to microseconds. When unimagined fame cloaked Armstrong, he carried the mantle with an elegance and dignity we should all seek to emulate. If Abraham Lincoln had survived to retirement I would wager that his life in most respect would have been similar to Armstrong’s.
So here is the takeaway from all this. What flaw repeatedly leads to the downfall of business and political leaders-disgraced individuals we all too frequently read about or watch on the news? It is a lack of humility. Their fall from grace is caused as much by an over developed sense of self importance as a defective moral compass. When a board of directors, an executive, manager or any one of us casts a vote to select a person for a leadership position, it is important to assess their capability to carry out the position’s responsibilities. But it is just as important to determine how well they will respond to the notoriety – to the status that attaches to the position. Think about it, even if you lead just a few people, to those folks you become one of the most important persons in their lives. To some that is heady stuff and the larger the job the headier it can get. My friends remember to select leaders who accept that fact with the sense of gravity such responsibility deserves. Not individuals who use their positions as a platform to practice self-aggrandizement. We need to find more leaders like Neil Armstrong.
Last week, my wife Jean and I visited the Grand Tetons. While taking in its grandeur, Jean asked me, “I wonder if this is what the moon looks like?” This past week, we lost a genuinely great man, selected to be the first among us qualified to answer that question. Well done Neil Armstrong, well done!