On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to a joint session of Congress the remarkable and ambitious goal of sending a man to the moon. His famous words were, 'I believe that 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 the 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.'
When in 1960 he became the 35th president of the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was, at the age of 43, the youngest man ever elected to the presidency, the first born in the 20th century and the first Catholic. He came to office with a dynamic plan to end poverty and ignorance at home and to boost America's prestige and standing abroad. By 1961 Kennedy felt that the USA had to catch up and overtake the Soviet Union in the 'space race.' It was a matter of national prestige. The Russians had been the first to put a satellite into space and in April 1961 they were the first to put a man into space, Yuri Gagarin.
Kennedy knew that he was setting an enormous, costly and risky challenge. He stressed the importance and difficulty of the objective. In 1962 he said, '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 which we intend to win.'
Kennedy's goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon's surface. It was less than six years after Kennedy's tragic assassination.
Great leaders set great goals. At the time Kennedy gave his speech committing the USA to a moon landing, there had been no spacewalk, no docking in space and no lunar module had been designed. It was a tremendous and uncertain undertaking. He did not underestimate the difficulty of the challenge but he stressed to the American people that it was a matter of pride, ambition and security. He appealed to the pioneering heritage of the nation.
While Kennedy's speeches galvanised the nation, NASA hired some of the best and brightest engineers and scientists to start the job. They had a clear goal with a pressing deadline and the freedom and resources to solve the problem. They achieved the historic moon landing within the decade.
None of us has the power and authority that Kennedy had. But no matter how small your team it is important to give them a clear and worthwhile purpose. Sit down with your team and agree the challenge and then empower them by asking for their ideas on how to achieve it. Often it is better to let them try their best ideas rather than imposing your own. Set the great goal and let the team figure out how to reach it.
Based on a chapter in Think like an Innovator, by Paul Sloane, published by Pearson.