Presidential BHAG’s

Footprint on moonAs I reflect on those who have served as President of the United States in my lifetime, there have been the good, the great, the mediocre, and the others. The perspective of history will sort that out.

An unspoken expectation is for each President to lead the nation. While each led in some manner, some exhibited strong leadership skills; others were weaker.

We have had the opportunity to visit the Presidential Libraries of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and while at each one, my thoughts were drawn to President John F. Kennedy. He did something that none of his successors have done, and honestly may not do again. What did he do? He challenged the people of the U.S. to meet a difficult goal. This challenge unified the nation, and we ultimately succeeded.

This challenge was extended to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. Said Kennedy: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”[i]Mecury-Atlas 4

A good leader gives challenges that help his people grow. There are elements to his challenge that leaders can draw from.

  1. Kennedy did his homework. He had some background knowledge. He gave specifics in his challenge. He had an estimate of the costs involved, and was aware of the technology that existed as well as what was needed.
  2. Kennedy knew he could not accomplish this on his own. In fact he lacked the skills required to execute the actions he was proposing. He empowered those who had the necessary skills and challenged: “every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant” to give “his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”[ii] He urged Congress to provide them with the resources to do what he asked.Apollo 11 engineers
  3. He provided a unifying rationale. “Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”[iii] Remember that this was in response to the Soviet Union developing manned space capabilities, in connection with the Cold War.
  4. He set a deadline for the project. The time frame was demanding, and the goal was not a simple one. But this created a sense of urgency, and work began immediately, and continued in spite of disappointments and disasters. He said that the “risk enhances our stature.”[iv]
  5. He created a spirit of competition. And then he said it wasn’t exactly a competition: “This is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others.”[v] This served to motivate everyone involved. And all Americans were involved, in one way or another.Gemini 7 rendezvous with Gemini 6
  6. Kennedy appealed to our patriotism, our “team spirit.” In a speech at Rice University in 1962 which served as an update on progress (another important element) and an announcement of what would become “Mission Control” in Houston, he said: “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”[vi]
  7. He asked for a firm commitment. This is absolutely critical in achieving a goal, especially an overwhelming goal like Kennedy’s. “Let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs.”[vii] There was absolute transparency in his request, long before we started demanding transparency of our leaders.Apollo 14 launch
  8. Finally, he issued a call to action, and a request for all to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve this goal. He knew this was a hard thing to do, and asked us to do it because we do hard things.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”[viii] He continued, “Space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”[ix]

Armstrong descends ladder

What was amazing to me as a child now seems somewhat commonplace to most people. There were 135 Space Shuttle missions, and numerous trips to the International Space Station that no longer capture the imagination of the public. But this would not have become so ordinary if President Kennedy had not set his BHAG[x] in motion.

A good leader gives challenges that inspire his people to stretch and grow; a great leader gives challenges that unify and motivate.

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Special thanks to NASA for the images from the gallery at https://images.nasa.gov.

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[i] Speech before a Joint Session of Congress, 25 May 1961. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/United-States-Congress-Special-Message_19610525.aspx

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid. Many of the technologies we take for granted were developed for the space program and later found use in civilian life. Examples include personal computers, microwave ovens, freeze-dried ice cream, and even the satellite systems we rely on for weather and for locating ourselves.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Speech at Rice University, 12 September 1962. https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/Rice-University_19620912.aspx

[vii] Speech before a Joint Session of Congress, op cit. Remember that he proposing an expenditure of $7-9 billion per year on this project, a fittingly astronomical amount for 1961. At Rice, he proposed an expenditure of $.50 per week for every man, woman and child in the U.S. to continue this endeavor.

[viii] Speech at Rice University, op cit.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Big Hairy Audacious Goal. This idea came from the book, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” by James Collins and Jerry Porras. Their acronym refers to a long-term, usually large-scale goal that changes the very nature of an organization.

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