“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” – John F. Kennedy
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon. An amazing milestone in history, one that both changed the course of humanity and resulted in countless innovations that even to this day have improved and enriched the lives of nearly every person on this planet. As Neil Armstrong famously said when he first stepped on the moon, “This is one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”.
While it was the U.S. that achieved this famous milestone, it was never assured it would be. In fact, at the time of John Kennedy’s famous speech, America was embroiled in a tight race for dominance in space, and the Soviet Union were much further ahead. It was the Soviets who launched the first intercontinental ballistic missile (rocket). It was the Soviets who placed the first artificial satellite in orbit (an important precursor to landing a man on the moon). And at the time, its audible “ping” signals sent from space were a clear and frustrating reminder of how far behind the Americans had fallen.
America did quickly recover, sending its own artificial satellite into space the following year. But not before the Soviets sent the first living animal (a dog named Laika) into space/orbit. In fact, it seemed that with each step the Americans made, the Soviets were one or two steps ahead. They were the first to put a human into orbit. They were the first to send a spacecraft on a planetary flyby (Venus). And in fact, they were the first to actually touch the moon (albeit through a planned collision of a satellite).
At the time that President Kennedy made this famous speech, the US was only 20 days removed from having successfully launched a human into orbit. Kennedy knew this, and he also knew how far our program was behind the Soviets’. Furthermore, he knew that while successfully putting a satellite into orbit was a significant feat, landing and returning a human from the moon was exponentially more difficult.
Which is what makes this quote so important. A statement of this magnitude wasn’t intended to say “we will put a man on the moon after the Soviets do,” it was a declaration that we would be first. That somehow, we would overcome all of the obstacles required not only to get a man safely to and from the moon, but also that we would do so before the Soviets. And we would do so before the end of that decade. A clear goal, with expectations of success, against a competitor already well ahead of us, and within a specific timeline. Doesn’t get much harder than that.
As leaders we will likely never ask our teams to do something as profoundly challenging as putting a man on the moon. But we will no doubt ask them to achieve goals that seem impossible, against competitors that are already ahead of us, within a timeline that is unrealistic.
Why would we do that? Why would we ask our teams to do the seemingly impossible? How are we going to make that happen? And more importantly, how can we possibly expect it to happen within some arbitrary timeline?
NASA did it. They figured out how to make it happen. It wasn’t easy. They had to develop a plan that accounted for setbacks, delays, and even tragic accidents. They had to plan for new technological developments and breakthroughs that were far from certain. They had to rely on inventions that spanned both technical and practical (down to the type of fabric the astronauts wore). And yet they did it.
Why? Because they believed. They believed it could be done. They believed in themselves, and in their team, and in their mission. They knew they had hired the best and brightest. They made a plan, then followed that plan – and adjusted it when it was necessary. But most of all, they were accountable both to themselves and to the broader objective. They knew what needed to be done and set themselves on task to get it done.
And such is the reason leaders challenge their organizations to achieve the impossible, against uncertain odds, under unreasonable timelines. Why? Because they believe. In their team. In the potential of each individual. And in the power that’s created when an organization rallies behind such lofty goals.