Is ambition the key for unlocking purpose?

How JFK unified a nation and put a man on the moon, all through bold ambition and purpose, by Dave Allen.

On May 25th 1961 President John F. Kennedy sought approval before a special joint session of Congress for public funds to support a long-term space programme. It had three major goals. First to put a man on the moon and return him to earth safely before the decade was out, second to put into space a worldwide satellite communications system and third to build an early warning system for worldwide weather observation. It was a bold vision for space that unified a nation. In one speech he wrote history. Why did he do it?

The US was behind in the space race. Russia had shocked the world with Sputnik in 1957 and had just put Gagarin into space on April 12th, 1961. The Americans had followed with Alan Shepard on May 5th but he only flew sub orbital. The speed with which events then took place is mind boggling - 6 weeks from Gagarin being the first man into space to the US committing, very publicly, to do what many thought was near impossible. Put a man on the moon.

Whilst the realisation of the second and third goals changed the world we live in it was the first that caught the public's imagination.

NASA was given the responsibility of making this happen. NASA had been formed by President Dwight D.Eisenhower in 1958, partly in response to Sputnik. NASA was established with a clear purpose of space exploration but it was Kennedy who saw the need to focus NASA in 1961 by giving it a monumental ambition - to lead the space race by putting an American on the moon in under 9 years. Via Mercury and Gemini project Apollo was born.

It showed amazing judgement and belief in the people at NASA and the people of America. It absolutely bonded a Nation around a common goal for a decade and beyond. It also illustrates very simply that having a clear purpose is not enough. To unlock the full potential of an organisations purpose you have to align it with a bold ambition - one that captures peoples imagination. You also have to decide how public you make both.

I can imagine the debate back in 1961 as to whether to make this herculean ambition public would have gone beyond intense.  Global public humiliation if the USA failed - but if America succeeded the prize would be immense. Global leadership on so many fronts - status and pride would ripple into every part of society and the economy. The commercial benefits would last for many decades. This is bold heady leadership.

I think making it public was key for Kennedy. It was how he was going get every American behind the idea and that was vital in 1961 - for he was in trouble. It also put NASA in the spotlight in a very public way. In the transcript of his speech he also talks about putting inter agency rivalry aside so he was also using making it public to 'bang heads' together. (If you are interested read the typed transcript of the speech and see where Kennedy made his own hand written amendments. It is an amazing historical document. Here is a link Kennedy Transcript)

As we all know NASA achieved the near impossible on July 20th 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. The first two of only 12 humans to have ever set foot on the moon.

So how did one simple sentence mobilise so many people to create and forge history?  It did it by setting them an almost impossible ambition. The purpose and the ambition of NASA was absolutely indisputable from the moment Kennedy spoke that sentence. I am sure they never debated either for the whole of the decade!

But then what happened then? Where is NASA today? It is still an amazing organisation. Though it has had its ups and downs since its remarkable achievements of the 60s. It still has a vision statement.

To reach new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.

How does that make you feel? Somehow it doesn't have quite the same impact. This statement doesn't have the simplicity and power of Kennedy's ambition. It is very laudable but would it get you out of bed every day with the same mindset and force of putting 'a man on the moon'. It has no central focus. No clear ambition.

You can understand why. After achieving such mind blowing results in the 60s and 70s they had achieved the ambition Kennedy had set them. When you achieve a monumental ambition like this you ask yourself  - What next? Without the next ambition you drift.

If Obama were to proclaim we will put a man on Mars by 2025 you can feel that NASA would mobilise in an instant (Whether Americans would want to spend their money that way is another matter)

The point I am making here is a very simple one that a powerful purpose needs a bold ambition to unlock it. Used together they can have a profound effect on any organisation or in this case a nation. Equally a purpose without an ambition is just that. A recipe for 'organisational drift'.

What would have happened if John F. Kennedy had said to the nation in 1961 we are going to reach new heights in space exploration and reveal the unknown so it benefits every American? P.S. I would like $5-7b do it...

It is unlikely any human would have set foot on the moon. It is less likely America would have taken global leadership in all things technology - a position it pretty much retains nearly 50 years later to the huge benefit of the US economy.

Kennedy understood mobilising people is not easy and to do it well you need to find a focus and express it in a way that everyone can understand. A bold ambition simply expressed does that. Kennedy had a burning platform and he needed to act. He turned a disadvantage into a compelling idea, gave NASA a focus and mobilised America for a decade. Not bad in 6 weeks!

This logic is true for every leader of any organisation - large or small. You have to find the purpose and the ambition that focuses your organisation, mobilises your people and you have to express it to them in a way that they understand and can instantly see where they can play a role in the journey. It is not easy to do and takes courage sometimes to be bold. Certainly you have to open yourself and your organisation up to potential failure.

It is only once people are clear on your purpose and ambition can they work out the strategy options and where they fit. Purpose and Ambition are the foundation blocks for motivating people and they will help you forge a powerful business strategy.

Kennedy found an organisation with a purpose that needed unlocking, he created an ambition that did just that - expressing it in a way the man in the street could understand and  he made it very public so failure was not an option. He used a crisis and turned it into an incredible opportunity. NASA and the American people did the rest. Genius.