Evolving the Dream – Lessons in Leadership from a Cold War Warrior

Back in the day – I had the opportunity to do a fellowship that took me to the Ames Research Center of NASA. There, tucked in a small corner office, off of a typically bureaucratic hall was the cluttered office of an aging gentle man, who toiled in near obscurity, surrounded by small mementoes of his life – autographed pictures of he and President Johnson, personalized memorabilia from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and memorial tokens of Gus Grissom – who was a personal friend, lost in the tragic fire aboard Apollo 1.

In short, this quiet, gentle man had been around. He had been there when NASA was where the elite of the elite strode down its halls and catapulted American pride and technological innovation to new highs.

I didn’t know this man directly, and my project didn’t put me in direct touch with him – but I was fascinated. Fascinated in what his perspective would be on how NASA went from a world class organization to what is perceived as a bungling bureaucracy. How did it happen and what lessons can be learned?

Over time I developed a relationship with this man and the lessons he taught me about leading in organizations are priceless:

1. “We were great when we didn’t know what we couldn’t accomplish. We got bad when we managed to our limits.”

He went on to explain that in the halcyon days of NASA, the common vision had no limits on what could be developed – on what could be done. There were no constraints on the thinking of the approach to problems and often what was found that the question at hand was really a 3rd tier issue that required the development of solutions to the 1st and 2nd tier first. It was in this “open sky” vision that NASA found most of its magic.

After the moon landing, NASA started ‘managing to the budget’ rather than to the vision. Constraints replaced energy as the guiding framework of the organization. “If you know how far you can go – then that’s as far as you will go” he told me. Of course, the magic is in defining the “can.”

2. “A common enemy helps…”

“You have to remember,” he said, “that originally NASA was created and evolved out of a fear that the Soviet Union would militarize space.” “Whether its fear or some other catalyst, there has to be a strong emotional driver shared throughout the organization.” “The worst thing that happened to the space program,” he said, “was when we lost our common enemy.”

3. “Leaps in vision need to get geometrically bigger…”

The final nail in NASA’s coffin was the inability to expand the vision beyond the moon. “In current technology, you have Moore’s Law,” he stated matter of factly. In computing you double processing power every two years. “I’ve come to believe that Moore’s Law is not so much a function of technology as a basic need in the human animal.” “As a people we have always naturally tended to do things better, faster, more efficiently – but in order to feel we have control we create systems – governments, bureaucracies, whatever – that provide obstacles to our natural tendency to grow.” “My experience,” he said, “is that organized collections of people – project teams, organizations, agencies – will wilt and die if they can’t keep setting the bar geometrically higher.”

“Once we reached the moon – it was almost incomprehensible to set the bar to Mars – very few understand the magnitude of the effort, and it seems like the same thing. We did a very poor job of evolving the dream.”

I’ve spent a lot of time studying people and organizations – I read a lot and done a fair amount of research. But the sad wisdom of an aging warrior provides a simple, but bountiful Rosetta stone for managing in our organizations.

I wish you well, old warrior, and thank you!

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Erica A Morin

Reaching for the stars from the height of a very small hill means the fall isn’t very painful and therefore will be repeated. Inspiration, daring and greatest comes when you reach for those stars, the fall almost kills you and then you look for an even higher hill next time. Thanks for the refresher on why I keep looking for that next hill.