In early 1997, I started the process of applying to the U.S. Naval Academy. I was a junior in high school, yet I was somehow undaunted by the steps involved in this application—one of which is obtaining an official nomination, which typically comes from your U.S. Representative or either of your state’s two U.S. Senators. I applied to all three of these elected officials for my nomination.
That was the first time I paid serious attention to the name “John Glenn.”
He was U.S. Senator John Glenn at the time, but he was also, of course, the first American to orbit the Earth, a feat which he accomplished in 1962. He did it again in 1998, at the age of 77. He was also a U.S. Marine Corps combat pilot and a whole lot more.
Glenn died on Dec. 8, 2016, at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, less than 100 miles from the small town of Cambridge, Ohio, where he was born in 1921.
He was 95 years old.
I received both a nomination from Glenn and an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. I ended up choosing a different path, but I’m glad I had a reason back then to learn a little bit about him.
His life was, certainly, remarkable. It’s inspiring. And I think the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial board said it well: “The most fitting tribute Americans can pay to this American hero … is to live up to the optimism of Glenn's vision.”
But I think there’s another aspect of Glenn’s optimism and the U.S. space program in general that holds a bigger lesson for all of us.
Let’s go back to May 25, 1961—about nine months before Glenn orbited the Earth for the first time. President John F. Kennedy, in a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, said, “… I believe 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.”
That’s not just a big goal. That’s what we now call a “moonshot.”
It was a compelling vision that, with the appropriate resources dedicated to it, harnessed the ingenuity of thousands and the curiosity of millions.
And it’s that type of purpose that can galvanize people into an organization that’s fighting for something big. Something meaningful.
When I work with executives, we often talk about goals and objectives. That’s great; these are important. Keep setting goals.
But I’m afraid that there’s not much about quarterly reports or even big financial targets that really motivate the average employee.
For that, you need a moonshot. You need a vision that helps people see the connection between their everyday activities and something bigger than themselves.
If you ask people in your organization about their job, they’ll probably tell you what they actually do, something technical or something about their functional role.
That’s good, but it’s not great.
If you truly have an organizational moonshot, an audacious vision that you’re committed to achieve, you should be able to go around and ask your people what they do and have them respond with your equivalent of “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
So as we remember the legacy of John Glenn, let’s also remember the power of the moonshot—in our lives and in the lives of the people in our organizations.
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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.