Leadership Lessons from the Life of “First Man”

Neil A. Armstrong, who died Saturday from complications following heart surgery, lived a unique life experience.  No wonder James R. Hansen’s authorized biography termed him ”First Man.”  Like Adam of old in God’s verdant garden, Armstrong stepped upon another, starker orb (no less the Divine’s) as both an individual and as our representative. The first man to be alone in that vast moonscape—what glorious isolation!—one associate just meters away, another orbiting above in similar aloneness notwithstanding.  His passing deserves pause.  Let us consider three characteristics of Armstrong as an individual, his hallmark of humility and three aspects of the late astronaut as our representative.

Preparation.  In contrast to the recent crop of NBA-types who belittle practice as just practice, Apollo 11 came off because of comprehensive preparation.  Early life hours in the air as a teen, many Korean War sorties, not a few test flights for the Air Force and various simulations for the moon shot all coalesced into success rather than failure for Armstrong.  Any leader will grant this is one of the (wrongly-phrased) secrets to success.  Many of Churchill’s ‘spontaneous’ speeches he laboriously crafted beforehand.  The next soloist premiering at Carnegie Hall has played her scales for years in a room by herself. Romney’s second run for the presidency clearly learned from the initial attempt, Mitt ’08.  First Man made ready.

Accomplishment.  Apollo 11 under the command of Armstrong executed its mission.  He led; others followed.  He did it!  An engineer astronaut landed on the Earth’s distant satellite, walked about and came back safely.  The event happened.  An American boy became a man, fulfilling his own boyhood dreams by dint of applying himself to more and more complex tasks aligned with his aspirations.

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While the world’s greatest athletes broke records, donned various flags and excelled in their respective sports at the recent London Games, the average man, woman and child watching the Olympics gained weight during the fortnight of global competition. There is a radical difference between observing and doing, critiquing and doing, wishing and doing. First Man acted with skill.

Contentment.  Once his part was over, remarkable though it was, Armstrong left the world stage.  Oh yes, there was a raft of international celebration after the fact and a period during which he sought NASA’s next steps, but fundamentally he went on to a quiet, anonymous life.  He enjoyed teaching and spending time with family. First Man was well-known for blending in rather than standing out. Previous proof of proficiency was enough to satisfy the man; a moon landing accomplishment was but a career capstone.  Notice was needless.

One thinks of Lindbergh—in contrast—who unwisely leveraged his fame into misguided foreign policy (to put his views mildly).  No such pronouncements from the pace-setter seen a generation later.  First Man did not strive for recognition.

Humility.  Pilots as a group are not known for their humility, much less military pilots.  Yet a widely-touted characteristic of Neil A. Armstrong was just that—old fashioned, middle-American self-effacement.  One of my dear pilot friends (gracious and mild-mannered, actually) once recognized our hero at a news stand in one of the nation’s airports.  No one but Spence knew who the man searching for a good read was. My friend accosted Commander Armstrong to give words of appreciation—and to quietly ask for an autograph.  The other pilot appreciated Spence’s subdued approach, indeed accepted my friend’s sentiment, but refused to give his signature.  There was a message in that consistent stance our day needs to hear.

Symbol.  As 2012 winds down we also need to be reminded of the importance of symbolism. “The Eagle has landed” echoed not only back to the American Revolution, but Rome.  Names, places, titles, clothes, ceremonies and so on derive meaning from special use.

Russian punk band Pussy Riot has gained support from abroad under the broad banner of human rights, understandably, but not so much in their own country. Why?  Locals recognized their speech acts mocked historic Christianity, not just Putin.  The importance of symbol is known and manipulated by advertiser and politician alike.

When Armstrong spoke into the event being witnessed round the world—one human descending upon the lunar surface for the first time in human history—his brief comment was spot on. Indeed, his famous utterance demonstrated he well understood the moment as a powerful symbol:  “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”  A global existential moment was captured fittingly, without being marred by ego (“Hi mom!”), or by politically correct blather (“That’s one significant step for a self-actualized individual, one bigger step for equally valued persons part of a global community”).

Team.  Not only were the events of each Apollo mission painstakingly practiced, but the three astronauts selected as public faces of each venture had tens of thousands of people behind them. In the manufacturing process, assembly, vending, launch, mission control and all the rest.  Armstrong wisely celebrated the many competent men and women who backed him in every way. Ego gave way to excellence, surface recognition to safety, individual status to group determination.

Notice I didn’t say effort, that lame PC buzzword for giving a task what my Dad used to call “a lick and a promise.” A nation doesn’t put men on the moon by jumping up and down about trying, but about succeeding. Each person did her part in the solidarity of a major effort marked by precision, calculation and hard science—the furthest things from today’s trinity of self-esteem, diversity, and feelings.

Vision.  Armstrong and company fulfilled the challenge delivered by President Kennedy earlier in the 1960s:  an aggressive, rousing, impossible goal. Nevertheless, a national commitment made the Apollo program happen, Apollo 11 the best known element of a progressive set of self-consciously American missions.

We live in a culture of truncated national vision. Most exist with low aspirations. Some at least harbor fanciful wishes.  But even a cursory review of movies and video games portend a comprehensive negative future for a growing number of America’s youth. This should not be.  The world situation demands optimistic and bold articulation of what can be done with coordinated effort toward a worthy goal.

Armstrong’s family asked us to pay our respects by looking up at the moon and giving a wink to the dearly departed. As he resides in a place other than our nighttime friend, permit me to offer a series of alternatives which will honor First Man’s legacy even more.

Let us prepare for great things.  Let us actually accomplish what is deemed impossible instead of carping about the contours of a mediocre life.  Let us make our mark and then retire, knowing others will come and add to our glory—even as our deeds required the efforts of many forbearers and, at times, eclipsed their barrier-breaking. Let us think less of ourselves. Let us be alert to and respect symbols when we find them.  Let us commit to a group who brings out the best in us and give our skill, expertise and imagination to the team.  And let us plant seeds of optimism to choke out a dying culture’s noxious weeds of anarchy, pessimism, and negativity.

Thank you, First Man. Thank you for a life well-lived. Thank you for making me reflect back to the greatness of what my country was and giving me courage to dream forward of a renewed greatness which can, once more, characterize America. Thank you for forcing me to assess (for once soberly) my life’s real influence—mere moon dust to your monumental accomplishment.


  • Dr. Raymond A. Craig

    Dr. Craig is the author of the forthcoming Leading In: Seven Essays on Accomplishing High Priority Goals. He also created From Guys to Gentlemen retreats and fora to foster balanced, biblical masculinity. He earned his doctorate in church ministry.

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