The #1 Attribute of Leadership: Inspiration

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For years, as a coach and mentor to CEOs and other executives, I’ve helped them adopt and polish skills on how to be more effective in leading their companies. Recalling that this is the 50th anniversary of the US moon landing (and successful return of the astronauts), I thought about the key role of a leader: to inspire the “team” to focus on the long-term and achieve its goals.

In a world where we’re increasingly becoming self-absorbed and focusing on tactical issues (e.g., social media topics and our political dialogue), Douglas Brinkley’s WSJ article “How JFK Sent the U.S. to the Moon” reminded us of the value of Inspiration as a leadership value. JFK didn’t live to see the moon landing (which took place during the administration of the man he beat for the presidency in 1960 – Richard Nixon). But he was instrumental to making it happen. As Buzz Aldrin reflected, Kennedy had the courage “to reaffirm that the American dream was still possible in the midst of turmoil”

The moonshot was the right goal for the historic moment. In 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, setting of a frantic race to improve the US capability in space. Kennedy made the issue his own during the campaign stating that he would” restore the structure of American science and education” which the Eisenhower administration had not prioritized. Kennedy observed that in Nixon’s kitchen debate with Soviet premier Khrushchev, Nixon said “you may be ahead of us in rocket thrust, but we’re ahead in color TV. Kennedy said “I will take my television in black and white. I want to be ahead of them in rocket thrust.” In his inaugural address he clearly stated the vision for all; to send a man to the moon and bring him back successfully before the end of the decade.

Once he became president, he spoke to Congress about “Urgent National Needs” and tied his New Frontier agenda to a lunar mission: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and turning him safely to Earth.” His sheer enthusiasm played a critical role in getting NASA to match early Soviet successes in sending men into orbit, while keeping the focus on going beyond this catchup approach with a moonshot program costing (in today’s dollars) $180 Billion.

When he was assassinated in 1963, his widow, Mrs. Kennedy reminded Lyndon Johnson how her husband had roused America to a great national purpose. With such support, Lyndon Johnson evoked the martyred Kennedy every time Congress tried to slash the funds. In the 1964 campaign, the GOP candidate, Barry Goldwater, complain that the moonshot was a “stunt” that diverted resources for more useful military and civilian applications of space science. After the election, many Republicans and even Democrats began taking a similar position, proposing to cut the funding. Johnson maintained his commitment to the moonshot and to inspiring the American public to stick with the goal by noting that the US couldn’t afford to be “first in Earth and second in space”. And while the NASAs budget did get cut after 1966, it was still sufficient to successfully get the Apollo 11 team to the moon and back safely. (Support for the space race later declined as Americans shifted their attention three moon-trips was cancelled.)

It was inspiration by leader of the US that mobilized the commitment and enabled it to survive over a decade as others took on the mantle of leadership despite increasing amount of turmoil (e.g., race riots and the Vietnam War).  Since then other presidents have created dreams for the US to visit the moon and other planets, but none with the inspirational commitment of President Kennedy.

As a leader, are you focused on strategy or tactics? Are you focused on long-term goals that will last multiple years or even survive your time in office? Are you sharing your enthusiasm and inspiring the “troops” at every occasion?  That’s the key to success.

Share your experiences of how you inspire your troops to mobilize and achieve your “moonshots”.