But WHY Should We Go to the Moon?

Image Credit: NASA

Let’s go to the moon! Or whatever my goal is! 
We can do that, right? Right, team? … Team?

The famous “Moon Shot” speech was delivered by President John F. Kennedy in front of a large crowd gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962. Majestic as it was, somehow this speech became a gateway to a whole lot of harebrained ideas in Corporate America. Because a few managers erroneously equated emphatically stating a goal with good reasons for getting it done.

The moon shot was one of Kennedy’s earlier speeches. It was intended to persuade the American people to support the American effort to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.

“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 we intend to win.”

If we merely look at the words out of context, it appears to be magical thinking. As a result, it’s created a management myth that by declaring a goal, we can make it come true. And that saying it repeatedly reinforces the magic. But it’s not that at all.

Kennedy understood geo-political influences better than most, and understood that the US was trailing in the space race with the Soviet Union. It was clear at the height of the Cold War that mastery of outer space was essential to controlling the military balance of power. Look at his words. He said, “…and one we intend to win.” He did not say, “achieve” the goal, he said “win”. Win the space race against the USSR.

It was no accident that he delivered the speech at Rice University; in Houston the home of NASA. He said, “We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a state noted for strength. And we stand in need of all three.” He realized the economic and political impact the space race would have on Houston.

What Kennedy did, was not to just state a goal — any Bozo can do that. He painted two vivid pictures, one where the US established a strong mastery of the cosmos, and one where the USSR controlled space and weaponized it. Americans in the early 1960’s could no longer continue to take a back seat to the Russian’s achievements in space. What he brilliantly accomplished was to create a culture and an unquenchable national desire to realize that goal.

Remember that merely stating a vision is empty rhetoric — that’s easy. But to understand the context of a national (or organizational) desire, to harness that, to bring along the audience in a way that resonates with them, engages them, and motivates them is rhetorical mastery.

When you are motivating your team to declare your own “Moon Shot”, don’t just outline your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and expect it to come true. Team members need to feel that they are a part of the BHAG and not just tools that enable their leader to achieve his career goals and win the next promotion. As a leader, you must understand the culture and context of the team, the people, and their needs and desires. Then engage their strength, leverage the culture, support their needs, and ultimately they will clamor to help you realize that shared vision.

Dearest Reader: In July of 1969, I was one of the kids glued to the black & white RCA TV to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Yes, it was really that cool.

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