In Apollo Leadership Lessons: Powerful Business Insights for Executives, a new book from Experience to Lead Owner Dick Richardson, stories from the flight directors, rocket scientists, and influencers of NASA’s Apollo years provide valuable lessons for today’s leaders.

50 years ago, man landed on the moon. The story of what it took to get there is lead by the stories of NASA’s leaders, who guided hundreds of thousands of employees to the once-impossible goal.

NASA’s obstacles weren’t just technical. Problems executives face everyday, such as creating a culture of innovation, maintaining employee engagement, and recruiting and retaining talent were as much a challenge as landing on the moon.

Here, author Dick Richardson shares his insights behind the leadership stories in Apollo Leadership Lessons: Powerful Business Insights for Executives, and offers a sample of the inspirational lessons learned from NASA’s Apollo years.

What was your motivation for writing Apollo Leadership Lessons?

Reaching out to the moon was the greatest and most complex challenge mankind has ever attempted. It took the best leadership possible to succeed. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is the time to reflect on what was learned.

We’re fortunate that so many of the great leaders of that era are still around. I was able to get the lessons learned first-hand from people such as Flight Directors Chris Kraft, Glynn Lunney, and Gene Kranz. This is the chance for another generation or another group of leaders to hear their stories and think, “Oh wow, I can learn from this.”

The people of the Apollo missions did amazing things. They really did pull off a miracle. When John Kennedy said we’re going to the moon in 1962, this country had 15 minutes of space experience. We had put one guy up for 15 minutes. After he splashed around in the ocean Kennedy said we’re going to the moon. And these Apollo stories are the stories of how people did it. This really is a fascinating story and there are lessons to be learned.

Why use the leaders of the Apollo era as an example for leadership?

Those were the glory years. Landing on the moon was just this huge accomplishment. It was the first time anyone has left our planet, gone someplace else, and come back. That’s just amazing. It took ten years. It’s the story of success, failure, tragedy and most of all leadership.

And this is a human story. This is about mankind leading his home planet for the first time. There won’t be another first time.

Each chapter of this book is a story that tells a leadership lesson from NASA’s Apollo missions. Do you have a favorite story within the book?

My favorite story would be chapter 7, about Flight Director Glynn Lunney and “Scales of Reciprocity.” It’s my favorite, first, because it is an idea that I have tried to practice my whole life. All relationships are two-way. Leadership is about giving and receiving. I believe that we live in a world of abundance. Too many people think of it as a fixed pie. And so, the idea of reciprocity is that we both get something out of a relationship. There should always be something for everybody. So, I love this chapter because of that fundamental idea that’s valuable in life, not just in work.

It’s also my favorite because of the character and integrity of Glynn Lunney. When they decided to launch Apollo 11, the first flight to the moon, the fellow who was in charge was Charles Hansworth, and he said there’s three dangerous times that the flight director will need to manage: launch, landing on the moon, and getting off the moon – because we’d never done something like that before.

So Charles gave Glynn the flight director position for getting off the moon. The person who really knew what the risks were put Glynn Lunney in one of the most difficult spots. Flight directors make life and death decisions.

I sent Glynn Chapter 7 to review, and his response was such an example of leadership that I included it as a sidebar within the chapter. He was very humble. The first thing he said was that I gave him way too much credit. And so I wrote in the sidebar that in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, researchers found two distinct characteristics among the best leaders of great companies: humility and a steely determination to do the right thing. That’s Glynn Lunney.


What parts of Apollo Leadership Lessons are most significant to you?

I think chapter 6 is important because this idea of cultural and social capital fascinates me. I grew up in a very small town, my family didn’t have money. But, looking back now I understand that in terms of cultural capital and social capital I was actually fairly wealthy.

I went to a good school for such a poor area. I also had parents who were very encouraging. My mother ordered magazine subscriptions for me: U.S News and World Report, National Geographic, etc. Reading those helped me learn to think, speak using better vocabulary, and how to write to some degree. These skills made me comfortable moving in different social circles once I got into college. People didn’t necessarily know that I was poor.

But I look back now and I realize there are people who don’t have any of that encouragement. As a result, It’s hard for them to move into higher positions. I really feel that people in leadership positions should be helping people gain some cultural and social capital.

So, in Chapter 6: “Hidden Figures: Understanding Social Capital,” I was trying to get that across. There’s an obligation that leaders have to recognize people’s skill sets and potentials, and to give people opportunities.


What is storytelling’s role in this book?

You can remember things from a story much more efficiently than if I just were to give you the facts. It’s how we have naturally learned over time — mothers telling daughters stories, fathers telling sons stories, and tribal leaders passing things down. There’s a natural need to want to hear stories and it makes lessons really easy to remember.

The other thing is there’s a natural story schema, in that we want to draw meaning from stories. That’s where we get the phrase, “And the moral of the story is ….” We’re just trying to draw meaning from it, like we try to draw meaning from our lives. I wanted each chapter to be a story and then to draw on the meaning of that story. Stories are a natural way for us to communicate when something is important.

Stories serve another function. Most leadership development is taught by topic, e.g. delegation, decision-making, executive presence, etc. But the real world isn’t organized by neat topics. The world can be chaotic. Leaders need to make order out of that chaos. They need to be better at recognizing that problems have different facets, and leaders need to consider, which of these facets am I going to focus on?

And then there are different ways they can look at a problem that will guide their actions. I tried to put these different facets into the story of the Apollo program. Apollo had many different kinds of interrelated problems. Leaders can draw lessons from Apollo by reflections on the stories of the different ways the Apollo leaders fixed problems.


Each chapter ends with questions for reflection by the reader. What was your intent with those questions and how will they guide leaders?

What I’m hoping leaders do is take the time for some reflection at the end of each chapter. Each chapter has a story, then an explanation of what I think the story means, and after that readers can reflect how that affects them. It’s the question of: what does this story mean to you?

I don’t think we take enough time to pause and reflect on the meaning of things. The pace of life has accelerated. Our ability to stop and think things through has diminished. But, research has shown that those leaders who pause and reflect on events and themselves are more successful.

In Experience to Lead leadership experiences, I always try to give leaders reflection time. I’ll say, “I’m just going to give you 90 seconds, please take a minute and a half in silence to just think and reflect: what does this mean to you?” So in placing reflection questions in the book, I’ve offered readers a taste of that experience.


What do you want readers to take away from this book?

I want readers to take away some thoughts or new approaches that will make them better leaders. This book is not about basic management – it’s a little bit beyond that. This book addresses a higher level of leaders. But I think all of us can improve and everybody can just get a little bit better.

I published a few papers while I was at IBM. On a business trip to another IBM office I had to get on a conference call, and so I used an empty office. I went into the office, sat down, and I got on the conference call, and as I’m listening, I started to look around at this persons’ office. A piece that I had written on leadership was there on the bulletin board in this stranger’s office. This person had cut it out, and pinned it to his wall to keep it visible. It was a moving experience.

I felt so proud to see that somebody saved something that I had wrote, and put it on their bulletin board. I had made a difference to somebody. And what really made it special was that it was somebody that I didn’t even know.

And so I hope the same thing happens with this book. I hope somebody reads it and says, “Oh, I can be a better leader and I’m going to do this. I’m going to help someone with their social capital, or I’ll introduce somebody to the right people. I’m going to give somebody a chance, or I’m going to think about relationships and be more fair, or I’m going to offer reciprocity.” Whatever the thing is — that somehow that they’re better for it.


Learn more about Dick Richardson’s book Apollo Leadership Lessons: Powerful Business Insights for Executives and order the book to hear more stories and lessons from the Apollo mission. Gain more valuable insights by joining us for an Apollo Leadership Experience at the Johnson Space Center, and learn how to apply these lessons to your organization.