The CEO who Landed on the Moon

As the Apollo 11 descended onto the Moon’s surface, the world collectively held its breath. The seconds ticked by, the tension rose… and yet in the midst of it all, the occupants of the rocket itself commandeered by one Neil Armstrong managed to hold their nerves at bay and execute a successful landing. On the 50th anniversary of the landing, it’s astounding how many leadership parallels can be drawn from it to the modern corporate landscape. While Armstrong never aspired to business leadership, choosing instead to live a more low-key life as an engineering professor, some of his traits are easily comparable to those of modern industry icons.

A humble man is a trusted man

Despite his monumental achievements, Armstrong insisted that they wouldn’t have been possible without a stellar team of co-pilots and engineers. While his Apollo 11 mission will go down in history, he was the first to recognize that it was built on the progress that Missions 1 to 10 had delivered. Each “failed” mission got them closer to success and Armstrong was wise enough to say that he was merely the successful product of a solid foundation. When leaders recognise the efforts of those before them and those with them, they cultivate a higher degree of trust than those who are transparently self-absorbed in their own fame and fortune.

Strategy is nothing without execution

While descending, the spaceship’s intended landing site was already marked out previously. However, upon getting closer to the site, the astronauts realised that it was covered with rocks and debris that would decimate the ship. Jumping into action, Armstrong took manual control of the ship and steered it away onto a safe landing site battling against time as the available fuel ticked down. In today’s environment, shareholders and investors demand intricate long-term strategic planning and roadmaps. However, as important as those are to provide direction to the company, an equally important aspect is adapting to circumstances as they arise. For Apollo 11, it was too late to abort the mission. The stakes were high, and Armstrong stepped up when it counted. Modern leaders would do well to take a page out of the astronaut’s book and steer the ship to safety when adverse circumstances dictate it so.

Adversity can be a great friend…or a woeful enemy

“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul,” is a famous saying attributed to Armstrong. Business and political leaders sometimes have a tendency to operate on a short-term view with a myopic “I can’t allow this to happen on my watch” attitude. In doing so, they miss navigating challenges that would elevate their reigns to the next level if done right. In a conducive macro-environment, after evaluating and mitigating risks, taking the leap of faith is much more rewarding than kicking the can down the road for your successor to deal with.

Compartmentalise and conquer

On a day-to-day basis, we are faced with competing tasks and priorities that demand our attention and time. Successful people, however, demonstrate two key traits. The first is the ability to compartmentalise to focus entirely on the task at hand. Armstrong said that in the two years prior to the mission, he was focused on validating and verifying every technical detail to ensure its accuracy. During the mission though, none of that weighed on his mind and his sole objective was to pilot a successful landing. Being weighed down by the “what ifs” at crunch time only serves to distribute your mental resources away from the task at hand. The second trait is focus. How many videos have we seen of athletes celebrating on the cusp of the finish line only to watch in horror as a competitor overtakes them and wins by inches? When completing a project, an “it isn’t over till it’s over mindset” can help prevent this.

Consistent Excellence

I guess we all like to be recognised not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.

Neil Armstrong

A “flash in the pan“ story captures your imagination for a while, but to be truly distinguished, a track record of consistent excellence is paramount. Plenty of investors have made 100%+ returns in one year, but Warren Buffett is the guru of investing for a 50+ year track record of delivering outsized returns for investors. Neil Armstrong understood this as well as evidenced by his quote, “I guess we all like to be recognised not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.” While celebrating the small successes and milestones is important, having a commitment to the greater cause and not allowing yourself to rest on previous laurels goes a long way in achieving your ultimate objectives.