I recently had the privilege of taking a group of executives to The Johnson Space Center to study the NASA as a metaphor for building high performing teams. I was pretty stoked by the opportunity because, as a kid, I was obsessed with the space program. I had put together all the space craft models and watched intently to each of the launches and especially the Apollo moon landing. In those days I had given little to no thought to what it took to pull this off.
I could go on and on about the lessons on leadership and organizational effectiveness from this experience, but the one thing that stood out so clearly to me was the leadership of James Webb, a person who is likely unknown to most of us, but who is in my estimation, the hero of that decade. Congress had determined to accelerate the space program by forming NASA and bringing under a single umbrella, the works of thousands of people and many different companies and agencies around the country, all to do one thing; fulfill the President’s charge of leaping ahead of Russia in the space race by landing a man on the moon and bringing him safely home before the end of the decade.
James Webb was selected to displace a leading scientist/physicist, Hugh Dryden, who had headed up NASAs predecessor organization NACA. To his credit, Webb knew what he didn’t know. He immediately asked Dryden to join his leadership team to lead the scientific aspects of the program. He also knew that, in order to coordinate the works of all these agencies and companies to accomplish the vision, he would require a strong organizational leader. He called on Robert Seamans to be the third leg of the triad that would lead NASA. Seamans was trained as an engineer in Aeronautics and Science at Harvard and MIT. He had already worked at RCA, a very large and successful organization. He knew what it would take to get things done. So while Dryden and Seamans worked together to herd this new and gangly organization, Webb used his years in public service to manage the politics and politicians of the program. Together they made a remarkable team and accomplished the unimaginable.
The deeper we got in to what they accomplished with what they had back then, the more impressed I became with James Webb. He built a collaborative organization made up of highly competitive companies and egos to form a high performance team who could focus on results, overcome obstacles, get past their own egos and drive for profits for “my” organization or silo to accomplish a feat that put the United States light years ahead of any other nation in the world when it came to advances in science and technology. It would take volumes to list the benefits that our nation and the world has enjoyed as a result of one man’s vision, and another man’s leadership.
Kudos to an unsung hero.