On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the first moon walk, we reflect on what it takes to accomplish a goal. 

“Men Walk on the Moon,” the New York Times headline read on July 21, 1969, the morning after Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface. The event remains one of the greatest accomplishments of human history. Hundreds of thousands of people at NASA labored for over a decade achieving goals towards the success of the Apollo 11 mission. In the contemporary history of corporations working towards achieving goals, there may be nothing like it.

Then let the first moon landing set an example. On the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11, we examine what NASA did to get there. Technical skills and financial backing played a role, but the most important factor was the human one: the leaders at NASA who inspired the best work from their teams.

How can leaders inspire employees to reach a grand goal like the moon landing? Harv Hartman, a former Human Resources Director at NASA and currently a Historian for Experience to Lead, gives us three facets to achieving goals.


1. Challenge Your Team by Setting Expectations High (But Let People Do Their Jobs)

When achieving goals, set your expectations high for your team. As NASA prepared to send men into outer space, they, “set a premium,” Hartman said, on a, “bias for action.” Leaders with a bias for action emphasize the value of task completion.

“There was a premium on doing everything the very best you could do it,” Hartman said. “Don’t overwork it. Don’t overthink it. Just get the job done and do it well.”

But to get the job done and to do it well, leaders need to nurture their people by letting them work freely within the expectations they set.

“Set high expectations for them, and then let them do their jobs,” Hartman said. Let them do the work to fulfill the elevated expectations.

Hartman saw an example of this leadership in Flight Director Chris Kraft. Kraft was a leader in establishing the Mission Control Center at NASA. He was also, “the kind of person that, if he asked you to do something, you went above and beyond to do that,” Hartman said. Kraft drew the best out of his people because of the loyalty he had to the people who worked for him.

“You just wanted to do your best for him. You didn’t want to disappoint the people you were working with,” Hartman continued.

Glynn Lunney, another Apollo 11 Flight Director who learned under Kraft, explained, “Our leadership trusted us and gave us room to do our jobs. In return, we gave them our very best efforts and loyalty.”

Put yourself into the role of Kraft, who inspired employees to do their best work. The challenges of Apollo 11 were extremely difficult. But leaders gave their employees the expectations that they could meet them.


2. Nurture Your Team by Valuing Your People

If you let your employees do the tasks you set before them, that shows them you value their work. Hartman remembers that type of culture at NASA during the Apollo missions. “They valued you for what you brought to the table and it taught you to do that same thing for the people that you worked with,” he said.

For a team to work together well, leaders need to establish a collaborative culture. They need to allow the team to engage, to feel included, and to work in an environment that develops their talents.

The foundation for a collaborative culture is the relationship between leaders and employees. The leader sets the expectation for how team members form a relationship with each other. “That’s a two-way street,” Hartman explained.

“You have to deliver on your commitment to people when they ask you to take on a task — you need to deliver on that,” he said. “And then in turn, you need to build the working relationships that will let you nurture the teams that you’re part of, to get to the goals that you want to get to.”

Dick Richardson, the Owner of Experience to Lead, wrote in his book, Apollo Leadership Lessons: Powerful Business Insights for Executives, that relationships are based on reciprocity. The relationships that co-workers have with each other balances the internal scale of a work force. When a leader puts efforts into building relationships with employees, employees who give their best work are the leaders’ reward.

“It was important for us to build the relationships, to build the teams,” Hartman said. During that Apollo 11 mission, the trusting relationships among team members allowed them to achieve the mission goals.


3. Create Goal Clarity with a Story — the Story of Achieving the Goal

Even with reciprocity, not every team with work together effortlessly. Hartman said, “We put together crews that sometimes were very very tight. And sometimes they weren’t so tight.”

However, as teams establish their relationships, they can still work together well when they understand their goal.

“Sometimes I think we found teams that may not necessarily be very compatible from a personality standpoint,” Hartman said. But, “if you could point them to what’s the high goal? What needs to be achieved?,” he continued, then they could work together.

”The important thing was that they understood the goal.” Hartman said.

How do teams understand the goal? They know the goal when they know the story of the goal’s success. For the Apollo 11 teams, the goal was very clear. They will be successful when an astronaut walks on the moon.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. The stories that inspire your organization are the stories that have made a difference to the success of your organization. To inspire employees to reaching goals, tell them the story of what their goal achievement will look like.

“When you convey that to them, I think people see that there’s a possibility they could do some amazing things back at their organizations,” Hartman said.

Because they understood the moon landing goal, NASA had “uncommonly dedicated,” people, Hartman said. “They weren’t any smarter than anybody else’s folks. They were just dedicated to the goal of getting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Everybody wanted to be a part of that.”


Inspire Your Employees to Achieving Goals

Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, famously spoke these words as he took his first steps on the lunar surface: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Hartman gave some insight into Armstrong’s words as the world witnessed NASA’s goal achievement.

“Neil was a very disciplined and organized guy. My guess is, he thought about what he was going to say.” He may not have committed to it until towards the end. But that’s not something he just… did off the top,” Hartman said.

“But what we got out of it was, something more authentic,” he continued. “Something authentic because it came from inside the people who risked it all to do it.”

Leaders guide their employees to a purpose. When Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he was aware that his step was, “a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade,” Armstrong said in an interview for NASA’s oral history. For today’s leaders, the moon landing sets a grand example of leading a corporation to goal achievement.

When leaders dedicate attention to their people — when they challenge them to do their work while giving them room to do it, when they value the work they produce, and when they tell them the story of what their work will achieve — leaders pilot their teams to achieving goals. Take inspiration from the work that lead to the success of Apollo 11. And lead your team to their own giant leap.


We continue to honor and celebrate the dedication and sacrifices of the men and women of Apollo, as NASA marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Program from Oct 2018 through Dec 2022, and the landing on the moon by Apollo 11 on July 20, 2019.

Interested in experiencing more of NASA’s Apollo story firsthand? Register today for an Apollo Leadership Experience to encounter their stories of setbacks and successes firsthand, and receive leadership inspiration that will help you to create a culture of innovation.