Last week we looked at three leaders who’s track records had accountability as a pillar of their success.  They also had the skills and resume to match their goals and role.  What do you do though if your skill set does not match the role you are called to fulfill?

How an Unexpected Leader Can Thrive Beyond 100 Days

A chosen leader isn’t always the one we expect. Sometimes a candidate for a major leadership role takes on responsibilities they seem otherwise unqualified for.

Sound like someone you know?  If you answered former NASA administrator James Webb, you’re on to something.

When President John F. Kennedy appointed Webb as just the second administrator of NASA in 1961, eyebrows everywhere raised. Webb was a career politician who held several positions in Washington, but had virtually no qualifications to run NASA. Webb’s predecessor, T. Keith Glennan, was an engineer and president of Cleveland’s Case Institute of Technology. As for Webb, his bachelor’s degree in education and public service background didn’t seem fit to put a man in orbit. However, Webb had a strategy that shaped NASA during the Apollo era and positioned NASA to achieve its goal before the decade was out.

Here are the basic steps that Webb deployed (essentially an environmental scan) that put him and the organization on the path to thrive beyond 100 days.

Evaluate Yourself and Your Strengths

Webb was no rocket scientist and he knew it.  Nor was he a manager at heart. What he was, however, was a savvy politician with a wide net of connections.  He used his connections to provide consistent support and resources for NASA’s many programs. Though he was appointed by Kennedy, Webb, described as “a master at bureaucratic politics,” successfully lobbied for support throughout Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, as well. Webb knew his skill set was most valuable in Washington.  So he used his web of political connections to ensure the success of NASA, even after the Apollo 1 tragedy.

Surround Yourself with Capable Colleagues

Webb was a humble leader who knew the science behind NASA was often better left to engineers and scientists.  While Webb assured the steady flow of resources to NASA from Washington, he left the show in Houston in capable hands.  Samuel Phillips, a two-star general in the Air Force and engineer, was appointed as director of the Apollo manned lunar landing program. Meanwhile, Webb restructured NASA, so George Mueller could have direct control of three centers at NASA headquarters.  Webb’s trust in those two men in particular was crucial to the eventual success of the Apollo program.

Set a Plan in Motion

Webb served as NASA’s administrator for fewer than eight years.  But the program accomplished an immense amount in that short time. Advances in space exploration under Webb were a direct result of his management. He utilized his talents as a bureaucrat in Washington to provide resources and funding.  That allowed rocket scientists and engineers to develop space shuttles and send crafts into orbit. Though Webb didn’t see man land on the moon during his tenure, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom just two months after his retirement in 1968 — just seven months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took one giant leap for mankind.

Dare to step away from the conference room and make mission control your classroom.  Inspire success in your business the way Webb and other great leaders inspired success at NASA.  Experience to Lead can help you and your business thrive in times of adversity and rapid growth using lessons from NASA in our Apollo Leadership Experience.