There are missions, and then there are missions. A type of mission is an achievable task with a fixed objective that is often tactical and short term in nature. The other mission is a high-level aspiration that provides direction and motivation to an organization over an extended period of time. Leaders who mix the two can jeopardize the future of their business.
The distinction between the two types of missions is dramatically illustrated in the recording of a White House meeting held on November 21, 1962. During the meeting, President John F. Kennedy and the Chief Administrator of NASA, James Webb, whom Kennedy named, had a heated argument. on NASA’s actual mission.
It had been 18 months since Kennedy called a piloted moon landing one of his top priorities in a special address to Congress, saying, “First, I believe this nation should be committed to achieving the goal, before the end of this decade, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. Now Kennedy was wondering if he could move the target date for the first lunar landing from 1967 to 1966, and he was questioning the leaders of NASA on the feasibility and costs of doing so.
As they argued over the size of the special credit that would be needed to fund an accelerated schedule, Kennedy suddenly turned around. “Do you think this program is the priority program of the agency? he asked Webb.
“No, sir, I don’t,” Webb replied. “I think it is a priority programs…”. With this, an argument began which exposed the chasm between Kennedy’s vision of the NASA mission and Webb’s vision.
For Kennedy, the space race was the extraterrestrial front of the ongoing Cold War. Landing a person on the moon was the finish line of this race, and he intended to cross first. “Everything we do really has to be tied to our goal of getting to the moon before the Russians,” he said. With this in mind, NASA’s mission was what might now be called a BHAG – an acronym coined 30 years later by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, authors of Built to lastfor a “big, hairy, bold goal”.
“Why can’t this be related to pre-eminence in space?” Webb replied. For him, the science, rockets and other technologies, astronauts and engineers, and the burgeoning aerospace industry needed to reach the Moon were integral to a national space capability. From this perspective, NASA’s mission was to ensure that the United States would be able to play a leading role in the new space age.
Eventually, Kennedy tried to end the dispute with a presidential diktat. After saying he wasn’t ready to make a decision about increasing the Apollo schedule, he added, “But I think we should understand, you know, very clearly that the policy should be this- the. [the moon landing] is them priority program of the agency, and one of the two, with the exception of defense, the top priority of the government of the United States… Otherwise, we shouldn’t be spending that kind of money, because I I’m not that interested in space.”
The fact that Webb continued to argue with the President after that statement – the discussion continued until Kennedy ended the stalemate and the meeting by saying that he and Webb should exchange views in writing – suggests the importance he placed on how NASA’s mission was articulated. Webb thought the agency needed a mission with a big M— an organizational objective of “pre-eminence in space” which it could strive to fulfill in the long term. Accomplishing this mission required a variety of programs in addition to the lunar project. Webb also believed that for all his ambition, Kennedy’s intense focus on putting a person on the moon was a mission with a small m– a short-term goal that, once achieved, would not be able to sustain NASA over time.
In the end, Kennedy and Webb resolved the argument by meeting in the middle. “If you look at what Kennedy was saying as a result of their interaction, he was saying our goal is to be first in all aspects of space,” said John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute and professor emeritus at the Elliott School of George Washington University. International Affairs, in an interview for this column. (Given a shortened presidency and life, there’s no way of knowing whether Kennedy really meant it or not.)
Meanwhile, Webb had considered Kennedy’s wishes. “He tried to keep balance in NASA’s programs, so the agency was doing a lot in science as well as human spaceflight,” said Logsdon, who has written books on US space policy. under the Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan administrations. . “But clearly he said, ‘My boss said, ‘Get a man to the moon before the Russians’, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. “”
This focus manifested itself with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind.” Webb had resigned by then, and his concerns about a mission-free future for NASA also surfaced. President Lyndon Johnson’s administration had begun cutting NASA’s budget in the years before Apollo 11, and the last planned Apollo moon landings were canceled in the Nixon administration.
Don’t confuse a goal, no matter how big, small or bold, with a compelling organizational mission.
“NASA, during the latter half of the 1960s, became what James Webb had feared, a one-program agency,” Logsdon writes in John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. Worse, NASA was unable to convincingly reframe its mission. “With the White House’s rejection of ambitious post-Apollo space goals,” Logsdon continues, “NASA has entered a four-decade identity crisis from which it has yet to emerge.” In this sense, and despite all of NASA’s accomplishments, Logsdon concludes, “Apollo’s impact on the evolution of the US space program has been negative overall.”
There’s a valuable lesson for business leaders in all of this: don’t confuse such a big, ambitious, and audacious goal with a compelling organizational mission. You can achieve a goal and put it behind you, but a mission is always in front of you and just beyond your reach.