Leadership and Humility amidst Greatness

The recent release of a film about Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic 1969 Lunar landing brings to mind the fact that history’s greatest feats are often accomplished by persons who are respected for their humility as much as their inspirational leadership. Leadership and humility amidst greatness are the attributes of a truly outstanding individuals. Armstrong had everything to boast about in his high performance background as a naval aviator and test pilot, service in the Korean War and first civilian astronaut in space during NASA’s Gemini program.

But the leader of the Apollo 11 mission and first human being to set foot on Earth’s Moon was one of those special individuals who humbly acknowledge that their achievements rest on the shoulders of so many others who comprise the team around them.

Giving credit to team members.

Although the ultimate success of the actual landing on the Moon rested with the Apollo 11 crew – principally the two in the Lunar Module – there were literally thousands of aeronautical engineers, administrators, technicians and support personnel whose individual efforts contributed invaluably to that success. A fault or failure in even a minor element of the mission could spell not only mission failure but fatal disaster for the crew. Armstrong was fully aware of that army of participants and ensured he publicly recognised their association with the historic event.

Leadership recognises the team

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

The other pivotal relationship of the mission was of course that between the two men who descended to the surface of the Moon. It was obviously close, positive and trusting – as it needed to be. There is also a special aspect of that relationship that becomes evident from the photographic images which record the events on the surface. For example, perhaps the most iconic image of that Moon landing is the image of a reflection in an Astronaut’s helmet visor which featured on the cover of a special Life Magazine edition. In that photograph the Astronaut is not Neil Armstrong, but Buzz Aldrin.

And of course the other indispensable member of the team who went with them all the way to the Moon and back but did not descend to the surface was Astronaut Mike Collins, who remained orbiting in the Command Module. What emotions must have surged through his being at that time.


Leadership and Humility amidst Greatness

The clearest image of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the Moon is one with his back to the camera – getting on with the job. In the midst of arguably the most momentous event in human history the key participant is captured in humble service rather than personal jubilation.

Leadership and Humility amidst Greatness

Neil Armstrong at work

How many business executives in the instant of much lesser achievement prefer to bask in a personal spotlight rather than permit their subordinates or team to share, let alone assume, the principal front of stage position when the accolades begin to flow? I once facilitated an executive performance review where one of the review panel said of the particular executive, “What I really admire about this fellow is how he willingly and generously diverts praise and acclaim to other people in the organisation for achievements that a lesser person would retain as their own.

Humility and generosity in sharing the rewards of success with team members is a true hallmark of outstanding leadership.


Lasting  recognition for a true leader.

The Eternal Footprint

As for Armstrong, he has his own personal iconic testimony in the grainy, soft focus black and white video image, just a few seconds long, of stepping off the Lunar Module ladder to the Moon’s surface for the first time – a memorial of that Universal First to which no other human being can claim ownership.

After his death in 2012 Neil Armstrong was buried at sea according to his wish and therefore has no grave marker on earth. However, he has that footprint which, without human disturbance, will remain his personal seal, impressed softly into the Lunar dust for eternity.

How well will your leadership humility and generosity imprint on the memory of those around you? 

(Above images courtesy of NASA)

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