Five things about leadership you can learn from Neil Armstrong

In this post, Ritchie Castree-Croad writes about the late Neil Armstrong and what we can learn about leadership from him.

A couple of months ago possibly one of the most famous Americans in recent history died: Neil Armstrong. He rose to fame with his command of the Apollo 11 mission and moon landing, but Armstrong was also a respected Korean war veteran pilot, academic, engineer and board director. Here are five things about leadership that I think we can learn from Neil.

Lesson #1: Focus on the mission

One of the things that struck me about this obituary was the comments about why Armstrong was picked to command the Apollo 11 mission, and as importantly, why Buzz Aldrin was not. Modest, a cool head under pressure, with a deep understanding of why what he was doing was important, Armstrong appears to be someone whose motivation had more to do with the larger mission than with his own desire for recognition, power or reward. Aldrin, on the other hand, was known as a self-promoter who make it clear why it should be him that led the mission.

Staying focused on the mission and its importance to America’s position in the world at the time meant he wasn’t distracted by his potential fame. Armstrong focused on the important work of getting the space craft ready, training himself and the crew and the mental preparation required for a pioneering mission. Whilst few of today’s business leaders’ roles involve landing on the moon, there are some similarities with the current complex and volatile business environment. Staying focused on your long-term mission is an important element of successfully navigating this complexity.

Lesson # 2: Retain humility and share success with the team to build loyalty

Armstrong understood there were thousands of people involved in the success of the mission – he was simply the figurehead. Being the figurehead is an important position but you need your team more than they need you if you’re going to sustain success both personally and in the organisation. Recognising the achievements of the team and giving others a chance to play a starring role goes a long way to building loyalty, particularly with your high-potential team members.

In the case of the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin may have been the more charismatic of the two: the question is would he have been as successful in leading such a complex mission from start to finish?

Lesson # 3: Develop the ability to stay calm and decisive under pressure

The powered descent, final approach and landing were the most challenging segments [of Apollo 11]. The unknowns were substantial, the systems were heavily loaded and it was the first time these sequences had been attempted in flight. Fortunately, the Lunar Module handling characteristics were better than we had any right to expect. And our practice on the Lunar Module Simulator and in the free-flying Lunar Landing Training Vehicle had given us high confidence in our piloting ability.*

Armstrong took over manual control of the landing and guided the Apollo 11 lunar capsule safely to the moon’s surface. There were some tense moments as the capsule approached the surface as the computer had selected a landing site on the inside of a large crater. Armstrong had to make quick decisions about where to land, balancing finding a site and the amount of fuel left in the capsule. He landed with just 17 seconds of fuel left. This wasn’t the time for consultation or discussion; Armstrong knew that he needed to make the decisions and he did.

As leaders there are times for discussion and exploring options and times when a quick decision is required; the art of leadership is knowing which style is most appropriate in a given situation. When we’re under pressure we’re much more likely to rely on our preferred style even though this might not be the most effective approach. To give yourself the best chance of acting effectively you need the next characteristic of Neil Armstrong.

Lesson # 4: Increase your resilience

Part of the ability to deal with complex situations is the having a high level of resilience. One element of resilience is the ability to focus on the present moment and not have a whirlwind of ‘what if’s’ swirling in your head. A second element is maintaining an optimistic mind-set. This is not just about positive thinking, but a realistic optimism that helps you stay focused on the goals and facilitates solution seeking. This quote from Armstrong demonstrates that he has both these key elements of resilience.

I had been very concerned about the technical details of assuring that [on the moon] the ascent engine could be started and would do the job of getting us back into lunar orbit. But that was in the two years prior to the flight. On the lunar surface, it did not weigh on my mind at all. This was the time to think positively.*

Lesson # 5:Play to your strengths

Whilst Armstrong’s potential for iconic status would have seen him have considerable say in the way that NASA was run, there is nothing in his performance as a mission leader to suggest he would have performed well as an administrative one. Yet, we routinely see people promoted to general leadership positions based on either their performance in a technical role, or because they pursue the promotion. The challenge still remains to identify leaders that can lead in times of ambiguity, who are motivated by the needs of the many (rather than their own), but then can identify when, as the situations arise, the reins need to be handed over to others.

Once the mission was over, Neil Armstrong was content to recede into the background. Whilst there was an opportunity for him to become the face of NASA and lead a broader agenda regarding the space program, he backed away from it and stuck to what he knew were his strengths.

His choice to stay in the background may have surprised or disappointed some but Neil Armstrong was someone who knew what he was good at and what would give him the most satisfaction in his career.

A cool head under pressure, good in a crisis, who knew what to do in the best interests of the mission rather than his own. Armstrong was a great person to have at a time of high uncertainty, chaos and potential crisis and he has characteristics that we all may need at times in our careers. Which of these lessons do you or your leaders need to learn?

*Both quotes from extracts of an interview by James. M Clash here