Leadership Lesson from Apollo to Now

“To be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.”
–Benjamin Franklin






Earlier this week we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the first footsteps on the Moon.  One of the celebratory events associated with the anniversary, and some feedback I received recently, have a connection that is the topic of today’s entry.

Warping back a few weeks, I received a very kind piece of constructive feedback concerning my blog entries.  I’m sharing it here with some slight edits to protect the anonymity of the offeror:

“As a team leader … I was given the riot act from some of the team for using terms like:

  • my guys …
  • my team …
  • my challenge (when referring to tasks the team was working, and not just me) …

They told me that they were not ‘mine’ and that they did not belong to me. They said that my talking that way was arrogant and demeaning.

I did not like the idea of hearing this of course, because I want to always be excellent.  However, upon reflection, I considered what it would be like if my leadership talked that way about me, as if I belonged to them.  I did not like that feeling at all. It would create a feeling of separation and alienation toward my leadership if they actually did talk like that about me.

So, I started using terms like:

  • we all …
  • our team …
  • our challenge …

It was actually better for me and the team to talk this way because it really did make the team closer and more productive.”

I realize that I write in the former style, yet I don’t believe I speak that way at the office about my team and teammates.  I reflected on the feedback briefly and ask myself the question: what if I actually did, and I’m not realizing it?

Now, let’s fast forward a few weeks to the recent Apollo 11 celebrations.  In particular, I was very interested in the John Glenn Lecture Series hosted by the National Air and Space Museum on Sunday.  This year featured talks from Chris Kraft, the first Flight Director in Mission Control, and the three Apollo 11 crew members, whom we all know so well – Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and Neil Armstrong.  If you want to watch it for yourself, it’s on YouTube:


I was especially excited at the prospect of hearing Armstrong speak – he rarely makes public appearances or speeches.  As I listened to the talks, I noted key contrasts.  In particular, I noted what Armstrong said – or actually, what he didn’t say.

He never said “I.”

Even when making a reference to the tremendous achievements of Apollo 11, he spoke in the third person and allowed the achievements to speak for themselves, all without needing to associate himself as a part.  It is about the achievement, not the man.  This is the most extreme form of humility I’ve ever seen.  He is indeed the greatest possible caretaker of being the first human to set foot on the Moon.

So, we have here an extreme in contrasts: a first-person writing style, and a third person speaking style.

Does this mean that a first person writing style is the opposite of humility – of arrogance?  At least in the case when the possessive first person possessive pronouns are used, it sure can seem that way – as the feedback indicates. My team; my guys; my challenge.  After all, I don’t own them, and if we truly are a team, the challenges aren’t mine alone – they are shared challenges.  I revisited the question I asked and added the corollary: is speaking with first person possessive pronouns an attempt at communicating importance, superiority, or other attribute not earned? That is a tough question.

Before it appears that I’m being somewhat hard on a first person writing style, I’ll offer this: I do believe a first person writing style, when used properly, has the potential to convey a degree of personalization, closeness and association not possible through other forms of writing.  Therefore, the challenge before me is to marry the two: to convey a personal yet humble touch.  I believe it is possible to do so.  Such attention to writing will spill over to all forms of communications, and by association I’ll have the answer to the questions posed in this entry, based upon servant leadership:

“There is no I in TEAM.”

Let’s see what happens!

Leadership Lesson from Apollo to Now