Our Thoughts

One "Small" Decision, One Giant Leap in Leadership

one giant leap in leadership

The anniversary of that first small step onto the lunar surface is approaching, and given the complexity and uncertainty challenging leaders in the current global environment I thought it worthwhile to revisit how Neil Armstrong was chosen for the leadership role in such a complex and historical accomplishment (at the time the mission was thought to have about 50% chance for success and Nixon even had a speech prepared in the event of failure and loss of life). First, of course, he had the expected resume: record EVA time (working outside in space), Doctorate of Science in Astronautics from MIT, had improvised an effective method for rendezvousing in space after an initial failed attempt on Gemini 9A, etc. And he had passion for the lead role. As the head of Mission Control at that time wrote in his memoir Armstrong "desperately wanted that honor and wasn't quiet in letting it be known."

Oh wait a moment….those are not the credentials or words of Neil Armstrong, but rather of the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. The credentials for Armstrong? Average grades at Purdue, accepted at MIT but declined to attend, Master's degree from USC, less EVA time, and this strong precedent against him. In ten prior Gemini flights the pilot (Aldrin for Apollo 11) always led the space walk. And Armstrong did no lobbying or self-promotion in search of the leadership role.

So how in the world did a humble man so disadvantaged by precedent and credentials get chosen for the leadership position that will live forever as such a powerful inspiration? In reviewing his life it becomes obvious how "small" decisions led to this giant leap in his career. But how is that relevant to leadership and decision-making over forty years later?

Forty years later we hear a lot about how leaders are challenged by the global environment and need to develop greater strategic agility and make better big decisions. No argument. But a prerequisite to becoming more agile and adaptive in thinking and decisions is to have a strong foundation of intellectual clarity, capability and emotional resilience. With so much cognitive and emotional energy consumed by the stress leaders feel in the current business environment, where do we start to build this foundation? Neil Armstrong taught us that the decisions we may perceive as insignificant are in fact the key.

We as humans share the same internal voices (dimensions) which speak to us and ultimately determine our communication, decisions and actions. When we better align and integrate these dimensions, we effectively reduce the stress or "noise" in our cognitive and emotional systems, and in the process create more internal "free space" to deal with leadership challenges and decisions. We all intuitively recognize these voices, but we may not think often or deeply about which one is driving most of our decisions and behavior, especially at an unconscious level. But Neil Armstrong did.

For our leadership development purposes we categorize these internal voices as:

  1. Higher Self: the dimension which prompts us to act in concert with universally shared values, primarily: integrity in communication and making decisions based on what we believe will benefit the most people affected over the long term. i
  2. Primal Self: the dimension which prompts us to do what feels best, in this moment, for me. Under great duress or stress often the urge to flight, fight or freeze, and not necessarily an unhealthy response if led by your Higher Self.
  3. Rational Self: the dimension which seeks to reduce uncertainty and variation in outcomes. Of course it is impossible to calculate with certainty all the immediate human responses to leadership decisions, and enormously stressful even to try.
Each of us has chosen to exercise and strengthen one of these dimensions over our years of making countless "small" decisions. The other voices gradually become quieter and subservient to our dominant dimension (what fires together wires together). If, however, we are exercising a dimension other than our Higher Self in most decisions, some unintended but significant consequences occur:

  • Our Higher Self will not shut up. Although quieter, it continues to prompt us unconsciously to correct the violation of integrity or higher good. Of course rather than choosing this healthy alternative, most of us choose rather to rationalize, blame and ultimately create a scenario where we are the victim rather than the violator…a false narrative that only requires continual justification and unconscious use of our intellectual and emotional energy.
  • Our brain will not tolerate this dis-ease. The "noise" and stress created from lying to ourselves causes the normal synaptic integration and communication between our limbic system and neocortex to be reduced, so that we become even less balanced and agile in our thinking, decisions and behavior.ii
Early in life Armstrong began to make "small" decisions with integrity and a higher purpose in mind. The inevitable outcome was described by NASA administrator Charles Bolden at his funeral as "the courage, grace, and humility throughout his life that lifted him above the stars."

Through the exercise of his Higher Self in many "small" decisions, his rational dimension, unburdened from trying to calculate all the external odds and responses, had abundant "free space" to create ideas and a clear path to achieve his higher purpose. Free of the guilt, shame, bitterness and powerlessness that comes with endless cycles of unconscious and futile attempts to rationalize past decisions and behavior, he was unfettered by emotional baggage so that his Higher Self could create the positive emotional fuel to sustain him over a lifetime of leadership and contribution.

Thus he did not need to expend great energy trying to "manage the elephant" of his emotions. They, along with his rational dimension, were naturally aligned with his Higher Self through years of consistent decisions and training. So it was easy for NASA to recognize who would use the prestige and honor of being first to most advance their larger mission and purpose. iii

If you want to make great and agile leaps in leadership effectiveness and decision-making, pay attention to small decisions and communication, for it is those that build the integrated or disintegrating internal system you will live with for the rest of your life. Finally, if you are curious how agile Armstrong was in his thinking and decisions….read what he did when there were only about 20 seconds of fuel remaining during the moon landing. Because he was led by a higher voice, he was free, mindful, present, agile and a decisive leader long before those topics were prominent. It might be worthwhile to follow in his footstep.

Roy Holley

  1. For more academic research on universal values a good starting point is the work of Shalom H. Schwartz and his Value Inventory, and of course much subsequent work to address limitations and gaps.
  2. Since neuroscience has become so trendy it is often hard to separate sound research and fact from "pop" neuroscience. A credible starting point would be The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT and the Martinos Imaging Center in Boston.
  3. Chris Kraft and three other senior NASA leaders met in March 1969 and decided Armstrong would be the iconic first on the moon due to his humility and character, and the implications for NASA and the world. The egress/hatch consideration later used in a press conference was for PR purposes only.