JFK, President Kennedy, the Cold War, the Space Race, playing to win

Kennedy, History and You

November 5th, 2013  | 

Published in Organization Health, Strategic Planning

The following includes excerpts from Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture, Greg Bustin’s latest must-read book for leaders that will be published February 2014 by McGraw-Hill.


There are days and dates we’ll always remember.

For our parents’ generation, the date is December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor.

For our kids and for us, the date is September 11, 2001. Terrorist attacks on American soil.

Another tragedy 50 years ago this month — November 22, 1963 — struck down a president but could not diminish his legacy.

Regardless of what you think of the man or his policies, there’s no denying that President John F. Kennedy inspired a nation to dream big and then turn those dreams into reality.

Decide What Matters Most

Fourteen months before that fateful day in Dallas, Kennedy was visiting another Texas city — Houston, birthplace of the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.

Standing before 40,000 men, women and school children at Rice University Stadium on a warm, sunny September day in 1962, JFK declared, “We choose to go to the moon.”

A series of events — played out on the world stage like a high-stakes game of chicken — had led to this moment.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space when he orbited the earth. The Space Race was on. Space leadership had become a measure of world leadership. And America was already behind.

So eight days after Gagari’s orbit, Kennedy responded to the Soviet achievement by doing what the best chief executives do. He posed the key question to his leaders who were overseeing America’s budding space program: “Is there any…. space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win? ”

Experts scrambled and eight days later advised Kennedy that putting a man on the moon was seen as a race where the U.S. “may be able to be first. ”

Armed with this assessment, Kennedy weighed the costs, the risks and the benefits of overtaking the Soviets and made the first of many “hard decisions ” related to America’s space program. On May 25, 1961, speaking before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy challenged America with the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. ” He wanted it done “before this decade is out. ” And he wanted to beat the Russians.

Play to Win

Kennedy’s competition was the Soviet Union. The American-Soviet Cold War battle was for preeminence in space. The stakes were enormous.

You and your organization battle for preeminence with customers, suppliers and employees. Are you playing to win?

Here are four steps JFK took to galvanize a nation, the teams at NASA and individual contributors to win the Space Race.

  1. Cast a vision to engage, unify and inspire people.
    King Solomon said, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Great leaders think big and inspire people to rally around a cause that’s bigger than themselves. This is the reason your organization’s mission (its purpose beyond making money) and vision (where you’re going) are so important. They must translate beyond the financial performance of the organization. They must matter to everyone on your team and inspire people to show up every day and give their best to achieve a goal that’s bigger than any individual. This is how top-performing organizations drive accountability.Does your firm’s mission give your team something to cheer for?
  2. Understand that competing is not enough.
    Playing to win creates purpose. Purpose sparks unity. “Everything we do,” said Kennedy, “ought to really be tied into getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians.” Some leaders confuse making money with their organization’s purpose and then wonder why their employees are less than enthusiastic about meeting performance objectives. People want to win. Winning requires unity, commitment and accountability. Leaders unify their colleagues and put them in position to win.Are we committed to winning? How can we tell?

  3. Challenge the team to accomplish an objective most consider unattainable.
    America started from a position well behind the Russians with the odds stacked heavily against it. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard,” said Kennedy. “Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and our skills.” In casting his high risk/high reward vision, JFK surrendered day-to-day decision-making, effectively motivating his colleagues to solve their own problems. Owning the outcome forged commitment and drove peer accountability.Is everyone committed? Does everyone know what is expected of them to help us win?

  4. Make the challenge public.
    Public commitments drive personal and organizational accountability. Declaring your intentions to others increases the likelihood that you will do what you say you will do. The people you’re counting on and those that are counting on you know where you stand. JFK made public his vision of beating the Russians to the moon. And he held NASA accountable for winning the race. For people of strong character, falling short is an embarrassment — perhaps the most undesirable of consequences.Are the people on your team capable of overcoming incredible challenges? If not, what — or who — is holding them back?

The power of Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech resonates today, providing a blueprint for any leader seeking to unify a group of people in order to accomplish a difficult task.

What are you doing to move from success to significance?

What legacy are you leaving?

Questions to Unify Your Team

My new book includes powerful concepts and practical examples you can apply in your organization, plus exercises and dozens of provocative questions to help you create and sustain a high-performance culture in your organization that’s based on purpose, trust and accountability.

You can download for free “Questions about Unity” at www.bustin.com/resources

To accomplish great things, the employees of an organization must be unified around a common goal, and each person in the organization must believe that what they do will determine whether or not that goal is reached.

“In a very real sense,” said John Kennedy, “it will not be one man going to the moon it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

About the Author: Greg Bustin is an executive coach, consultant and speaker who has delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five continents. www.bustin.com Greg advises leaders at some of the world’s most admired companies, and his views about leadership have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive, Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., Investor’s Business Daily, Leader to Leader, and other major publications. He’s written five leadership books. His newest book, How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices (Sourcebooks), examines decision-making in history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies. How Leaders Decide

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