Quick… What is the mission of space shuttle Atlantis that launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center yesterday? What has been the program goal of the prior 134 space shuttle missions (launched at about $1.5 billion/copy) over the last 30 years? What has been the goal of America’s space program since 1969, when, standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, the Apollo 11 crew fulfilled President Kennedy’s 1961 promise that we would put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade?
If the answers aren’t coming to you quickly or clearly, don’t feel bad. I suspect you’re like most people, including many in Congress who vote to fund NASA, and even some at the agency itself. To wit, is it really any wonder that America’s space program as we have known it seems to be riding off into the sunset?
On our way to Titusville, Florida to view the Atlantis launch yesterday, friend and business partner, Richard Hadden asked for my thoughts, as something of an aerospace junkie, on the eminent conclusion of NASA’s shuttle program. In the pre-dawn darkness some eight hours prior to the launch of STS 135, I hadn’t yet sorted out my emotional reaction to the program’s ending. What we talked about instead is just how similar NASA’s current situation is to other entities (e.g., governments, companies, et. al.) that lose their way, their funding, and their mojo.
The Bible’s book of Proverbs 29:18 suggests that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” In this case, an agency that has long operated with a very cloudy, or at best misunderstood sense of purpose, direction, and priority is in real danger of going away, not because a nation has grown tired of space venture, but because of the persistent failure to clearly articulate a credible and compelling vision for the future.
Operating on a raison d’être tantamount to, “we do space”, or with a charge like that established by former President George W. Bush to revisit the Moon, something we accomplished nearly a half-century ago, isn’t going to get the job done. It’s almost as if we’ve fumbled the ball and are waiting for private ventures like SpaceX or Virgin Galactic to pick it up and see what they can do with it.
More germane to this post and our readership, the very same thing happens to companies, business units, departments, and teams that fail to credibly articulate and maintain a compelling sense of purpose and direction. As leaders, it is incumbent on each of us to determine, articulate, and then permanently illuminate, with one of those big 5-cell flashlights, the path ahead. What are we about? Why does this organization exist? As the French put it, what is our raison d’être? Where are we going? Why does it matter?
Fail to connect the dots on any one of these items and slowly (at first), but inexorably, the lights go out, and the party is over. President Obama desperately needs to do this for our nation at this time, and you and I need to do it with our own teams. A few suggestions:
- Having decided upon the “vision/mission thing”, it is not enough to announce it once or twice and then hang some relevant testimonial junk on the wall. Rather, to overcome the understandable cynicism that exists inside organizations, we need to practically “carpet-bomb’ the place with repeated signs that this is more, much more than some new program. Rather, it is to be our way of life. Words are important, but actions trump syllables.
- To operationalize and breathe life into those words, we should make it clear to the folks on our team that good faith efforts on their part to enact the vision will never get them in trouble. Similarly, if they are doing things that do not line up with that purpose, they should stop doing them as soon as practical. On an institutional level, we must take pains to be sure that budgets and reward mechanisms support our declared purpose and direction.
- To be sure, Level 1 and 2 managers (the folks closest to the front line, and the ones with the toughest jobs in any organization) should be charged with ensuring that their teammates get the big picture. But, because people don’t operate day to day in the big picture, they must see to it that those around them clearly grasp the top two or three priorities. You and I can spot-check this by periodically asking a few people to articulate the top three priorities for the organization. If they can do it, celebrate it, right then and there. If they can’t (more likely), we’ve got more work to do.
In the meantime, Godspeed to the crew of Atlantis sts 135, and the men and women here on the ground who have worked tirelessly in support of them and our nation’s space program.
A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit their website, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows