Tribute to Neil Alden Armstrong (1930-2012)

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. . . In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.”

Neil ArmstrongThe stakes were extremely high – human lives, top government dollars, and national reputation. Even a moving eulogy (as depicted in the excerpt above) was prepared in advance for President Richard Nixon to deliver, just in case the USA’s maiden mission to the moon failed.

On the contrary, half a billion people who were glued to their black-and-white televisions that fateful 20 July 1969, witnessed Neil Armstrong planting his left foot on the moon’s surface and uttering his most famous quote, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As we reflect on Armstrong’s life, we want to focus on his leadership attributes. There are many we can think of, but we shall use a befitting acronym, SPACE, to distill five selected attributes.

S – Service: Armstrong served a cause greater than himself.

It would be inconceivable for any book on the history of the world to omit Armstrong’s stellar feat. Even before he was roped into the rigorous space and lunar programmes, Armstrong had already proven his mettle in the Korean War.

His family described him as “a reluctant hero who always believed he was just doing his job.” In other words, he served a greater cause beyond himself. Fame was merely the price to pay, not the prize to play.

o  Looking at the industry we work in, do we find many leaders today whom we can truly describe as serving a greater cause than their own selves?

P – Passion: Armstrong had passion for what he did.

Armstrong’s passion for flying was evident from young. By the time he was 15, he could fly – even before he got his driver’s licence.

“He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits,” Armstrong’s family stated in an official statement released upon his death.

While Armstrong was pursuing engineering at Purdue University on a Navy scholarship, the Korean War erupted and interrupted his studies. Called to serve as a Navy fighter pilot, Armstrong flew a total of 78 combat missions, including one from which he was forced to eject. The hazards of flying did not quench his passion for soaring high.

After his Navy stint, Armstrong returned to Purdue to immerse himself more earnestly in his passion for aeronautical engineering. His passion, coupled with dedication and hard work, earned him impressive grades that led to an illustrious career.

o  What is the passion you have, which consumes you so much that you would dedicate your life to fulfilling it?

A – Adventurous: Armstrong was adventurous, eager to learn and try out new things.

The adventurous Armstrong yearned to be someone who contributed to making history. In an interview with his biographer, James R. Hansen, Armstrong revealed that when he was a freshman, he felt disappointed that Charles Yeager had already broken the sound barrier in flight, simply because he thought he had been born a generation “too late”.

But little did Armstrong know then that he himself was poised to make greater history! Armstrong not only became the first man to walk on the moon, but also had the distinction of being the first American civilian astronaut to fly in space when he commandeered Gemini 8 with his co-pilot, David R. Scott, in 1966.

o  How many of us would dare to venture out beyond our comfort zone? How many of us are prepared for personal and organizational breakthroughs?

C – Competent: Armstrong was competent in his field of expertise.

Armstrong’s contemporaries acknowledged that his engineering skills were outstanding. Fellow test pilot Milt Thompson hailed Armstrong as “the most technically capable of the early X-15 pilots.” Another colleague, Bill Dana, attested to Armstrong’s superior learning capabilities and photographic memory.

When faced with imminent danger, Armstrong was able to stay in control. His first journey into space in 1966 nearly ended in disaster, but Armstrong kept his cool and successfully steered the spacecraft home safely despite a malfunctioning thruster rocket that had spun out of control.

o  Do your colleagues and associates think you are competent? Are you competent enough to execute your responsibilities and to inspire others? 

E – Ethical: Armstrong had strong work ethics.

Armstrong demonstrated strong work ethics. After leaving the space programme, he was cautious not to do anything that might tarnish or undermine the monumental achievement he was linked to.

Despite having many opportunities to exploit his fame, Armstrong chose to stay in the background. He was not publicity hungry and rarely granted interviews. Instead, he remained gracious and humble, even feeling guilty that he had received all the acclaim for an effort that involved “…400,000 people to send him to the moon; thousands of the world’s best engineers, scientists, researchers, support staff, and even seamstresses who carefully stitched together the space suits required to withstand extreme temperatures,” a heartfelt sentiment of Armstrong that was reported by Carmine Gallo at Forbes.

o  Do you practise good work ethics? Have you been the victim of poor work ethics? For example, how often has your idea or work been hijacked by a colleague who conveyed it the boss as his or her own, without giving you credit for your contribution?

Concluding thoughts
How many leaders do you personally know who can stand up to the SPACE criteria? Though our leadership space may not span the heights that Armstrong scaled, the way we conduct ourselves in our space at the workplace and in society, is just as important.

As our bashful SPACE man rests in peace in a different dimension, his lunar legacy will live on in our imagination, and constantly be re-lived through documentaries, encyclopaedias and countless publications. Farewell, Armstrong! Not even death can eclipse your achievements in life.