Every day we encounter problems and challenges in our lives. Most are fairly simple and straightforward, and can be solved on our own. Companies and small organizations deal with mid-size to larger problems. In these cases, typically some type of management structure is in place, and teams of people are able to work together and achieve results and solutions. This can occur on occasion, even in the absence of strong leadership, although the results may be far from ideal.
But the largest, most complex problems occur at an industry level, national / world government level, or even across society as a whole. Strong leadership is a critical requirement to even begin to address these challenges, let alone identify and implement viable solutions. The key traits that a strong leader must demonstrate to solve these complex problems include vision, passion, and commitment. To illustrate this, one of my favorite historic examples of a successfully implemented solution to a very complex problem/challenge is the race to land a man on the moon in the 1960s.
At the outset of taking on a complex problem, a leader must establish a clear vision of the goal and what the end state solution will look like. NASA was established during President Eisenhower’s administration, but the clear vision set by President Kennedy to land a man on the moon set a specific direction for NASA moving forward. Kennedy’s vision also served as a catalyst for space exploration as a whole, embraced innovation, and set out to accomplish a goal that mankind had only dreamed of for centuries.
However, what became quickly apparent to leaders at NASA was that they didn’t have just one problem to tackle, but tens, if not hundreds of challenges to address. More leaders had to emerge within NASA, responsibilities had to be delegated, and each individual challenge needed its own vision and path forward for its solution. The respective leaders also had to ensure that all their individual visions and solutions could integrate together to achieve the master vision as established by President Kennedy. The challenges of launching men and equipment into space, navigating and docking with different spacecraft, dealing with zero-gravity, designing spacesuits and astronaut equipment, landing on and taking off from the moon itself, and returning to Earth, all had to be addressed. There was a vision of how each of those solutions would be enabled, and collaboration among leaders to ensure they would work together and achieve a common goal.
Once the vision was established, and the goal of landing men on the moon well understood, the leaders involved pursued the goal with relentless passion. Designers, engineers, and scientists changed their career paths to be part of this historic journey. Every spaceflight during the 1960s, from the Mercury program through to Apollo, was a passionate step forward in establishing the building blocks to get to the moon. With each mission, another individual solution was tested and verified, and refined as necessary. As the years passed, the closer NASA got to achieve the common goal, the more passionate they became about achieving it.
The passion over reaching the moon was so intoxicating that it completely captivated the nation, and the world for that matter. The early success and planning of NASA leadership were highly instrumental in this.
Finally, as important as it is to establish a vision, and to pursue it with passion, complex problems and challenges need a leader’s solid commitment to see the effort through to the end. Quite often these efforts can be multi-year endeavors, and it can be easy along the way to lose sight of the long term goal in the midst of the day-to-day activities and tasks. To be successful, leadership must continue to reinforce the commitment and resolve for all involved in order to achieve the vision.
Attempting to address these challenges can and will have their share of setbacks. Sometimes a setback can be so severe, it can run the risk of eroding the team’s passion, and not achieve the final vision. The mission to land men on the moon was no different, as many setbacks caused NASA to evaluate and learn and rethink their approach along the way. The most notable of these was the tragic fire and loss of life during training for the flight of Apollo 1. NASA’s commitment and resolve afterwards were stronger than ever, and ultimately achieved President Kennedy’s original vision within months of his goal.
What else could we accomplish with this model? What prevents us today? Too often we have competing visions that prevent a lack of clarity and direction. Without a clear vision and direction, people will be less likely to be passionate about their contributions, have less collaborations in working through their challenges, and ultimately lack the commitment to see a possible solution through to the end. However, as with the race to the moon, once we get behind a strong leader with a great vision to address a complex challenge, you can just imagine what is actually possible to achieve.