It was 5:56am on July 21st when the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center—the 135th and final flight of the 30-year Space Shuttle Program. Sadly, the U.S. manned space flight program is over for the foreseeable future, maybe forever. The International Space Station is still up there circling our globe at 17,000 miles per hour, but it is now the Russians who now have the lead role of shuttling astronauts back and forth. If you are over fifty, it sounds familiar doesn’t it?
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world, launching Sputnik 1 into orbit, taking the lead over the U.S. in the space race. It was a clash of good versus evil, God versus atheists, capitalism versus communism, democracy versus dictatorship, and the “bad guys” were winning. Four years later (April 12, 1961), the bad guys were still ahead when Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit earth—one time around in a Vostok spacecraft. The good guys pulled off a 15-minute sub-orbital flight (Alan Shepard, Freedom 7) about three weeks after Gagarin’s feat. However, it would be almost a year before John Glenn circled the earth one time for the U.S. We were behind and not catching up. Why? We were in a race, but we didn’t have a finish line, a goal, a clear vision. Vision is the responsibility of leadership, both to cast it and pull it off. President John Kennedy was our leader then. It was his job to do something and boy, did he!
Six weeks after Gagarin’s feat—before the U.S. had even attempted an orbital flight—President Kennedy cast a vision that excited and energized America like no other in my lifetime:
I believe 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 Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
Special Joint Session of Congress—May 25, 1961
This wasn’t just a vision, it was a BHAG! (Big Hairy Audacious Goal per Jim Collins in Good To Great.) Before the U.S. had flown around earth a single time, President Kennedy challenges us to go to the moon and back in less than nine years. He didn’t say it would be easy; he said it would be “difficult…expensive to accomplish.” He also said it would be worth it: “No single space project…will be more impressive…or more important….” Two years later, President Kennedy was struck down by an assassin’s bullet and didn’t get to see his vision fulfilled. But it was, and how!
Eight years and fifty-six days (July 20, 1969) after President Kennedy’s speech, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed on the moon, announced by Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s simple statement, “The Eagle has landed.” About six hours later at 10:56 EDT, Armstrong’s left foot touched the moon’s surface as 600 million people watched on live TV and were stirred by his statement, “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” Even more stirring for me was the planting of the U.S. flag and Astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s pause to salute it. I am not ashamed to admit that I shed some tears that night and then again four days later when the Command/Service Module Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean with Armstrong saying, “Everything’s okay. Our checklist is complete. Awaiting swimmers.”
It started with a surprising and shocking vision: “I believe this nation should commit itself…before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Significant accomplishment always requires a significant vision. In his book, Visioneering, Andy Stanley says:
“It is vision that helps you end up somewhere on purpose.”
Leading without vision is like trying to put a puzzle together without the box cover. Your vision doesn’t have to be a BHAG like going to the moon. However, it does have to give you something clear and compelling to shoot at. Is your organization floundering, frustrated, getting tired and going nowhere? Maybe you are running a race without aim, without a finish line, without a vision. Are you the leader? It’s up to you. Get out your paint brush and start painting a picture of the future. Your business, or church, or non-profit, or family, or __________, is waiting on you.
Remember, it wasn’t a Saturn rocket that launched Apollo 11, it was a vision.
© Copyright 2011 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company
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