Yesterday we lost a true American hero. Former astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, passed away at the age of 82. Armstrong’s life story read like pages from an adventure novel: earned his pilot license at age 15, flew 78 missions in the Korean War as a Navy fighter pilot, test piloted experimental rocket planes that flew to the edge of space at altitudes of over 200,000 feet, and commanded the Apollo 11 space mission and became the first man to walk on the moon.
Despite his many accomplishments, Neil Armstrong was a humble, private man who didn’t seek to turn his achievements into fortune and fame. After retiring from NASA in 1971, Armstrong taught engineering at Purdue University and served on the boards of several businesses. His reserved, low-key approach to leading his life is strikingly at odds with today’s “look at me” reality TV infused culture. In An Audience with Neil Armstrong, the famous astronaut discusses his life and the experience of traveling to the moon. The interview is a treasure-trove of leadership wisdom, but there were five lessons that struck me as important for leaders of all generations.
1. Humility – Virtually every written account of Armstrong’s life, as well as descriptions from those who knew him best, describe him as a man of extreme humility. He resisted bringing attention to himself and always viewed his accomplishments as simply the result of “doing his job.” Humility is a key characteristic of Jim Collins’ profile of successful Level 5 leaders and it is a key component to establishing high-trust relationships. It’s hard to trust the intentions of self-absorbed leaders whereas humble leaders create an environment and culture that breeds openness and trust.
2. Recognize and value the contributions of others – Armstrong readily acknowledged the invaluable contributions of the Apollo 1-10 missions as laying the building blocks for his crew’s moon landing. Each Apollo mission had specific goals that were milestones to the ultimate mission of landing on the moon. Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crew got the nod for the moon landing and he recognized that his efforts were just the next link in the entire chain of the Apollo space program. Today’s leaders would be wise to honor and respect those who have laid the groundwork ahead of them and not act like the success they’re enjoying today is solely a result of their efforts.
3. Stay vigilant because problems occur when you least expect them – On the descent to the moon, the Lunar Module’s navigation system was targeting a landing spot that would be on the edge of a slight hill. Armstrong had to take manual control of the spacecraft for the last 2 minutes and fly it to a safe landing site. Successful leaders are always scanning the environment so they can react to changing conditions. Flying on auto-pilot is best when conditions are stable, but in today’s world where daily change is the norm, using auto-pilot for too long can have disastrous consequences.
4. The power of focus – Shortly after stepping onto the surface of the moon, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin placed a memorial on the lunar surface honoring the deceased astronauts, both Russian and American, who had preceded them in attempts to reach the moon. Armstrong describes it as being a tender moment, yet a very quick one because there was a checklist of many tasks awaiting their attention. Armstrong took a focused, methodical approach to his work that shows the power of concentrated attention. It’s easy for leaders to have their focused diffused among all the demands competing for their attention, yet the most successful leaders have learned to block out the distractions and focus on those activities that produce the most results.
5. Never let a good problem go to waste – The Apollo 1 crew suffered a terrible tragedy in 1967 when during a pre-flight test a cabin fire in the control module killed the crew of Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee. The Apollo space flights were put on nearly a two-year hold while the accident was investigated. NASA only had four years to fulfill President Kennedy’s challenge to reach the moon by the end of the decade, but rather than letting the delay prevent them from achieving their goal, they used those two years to refine the design of the control module and to keep training for the moon landing. Armstrong and his colleagues demonstrated ingenuity and perseverance in dealing with this setback and it’s a lesson for all leaders about how to make the most of the problems thrown their way.
I think his family described it best when they said yesterday, “While we mourn the loss of a very good man, we also celebrate his remarkable life and hope that it serves as an example to young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”