Monday, September 10, 2012

When Greatness Visits

Many fine words have been written about astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the moon. He died this month in Cincinnati. Armstrong was a high-speed test pilot for the Navy, logging over 900 flights. A fearlessly skilled technician. And an enigmatic presence for those of us who were around at the time of his 1969 moonwalk. The piece of the puzzle I am most interested in is this: how should ordinary people react when greatness is thrust upon them?

At Saatchi & Saatchi we worked with Neil's #2 Buzz Aldrin over a few years on our Innovation in Communication Award. Buzz by name, Buzz by nature. And continuing this thread, Neil by name, kneel by nature: humble, taciturn, focused on team rather than self, in service to his country and his fellow man.

Aldrin thrived in the spotlight, and we appreciated this and even basked in it because we could feel and touch the inspiration that catapulted “us” to the moon. With Aldrin you felt a direct connection to JFK’s dream “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” The Russians were streets ahead (poor metaphor but you get the point) and America’s catch-up in space is an inspiration for everyone today looking at the debt mountain and how to tackle it. How our challenges have become mundane!

After the lunar triumph Neil Armstrong retreated to Ohio to resume a normal sort of a life. He became a professor of aeronautical engineering and did not seek – nor give nor offer to be in – the limelight. He rejected approaches from all-comers – political parties, corporations, advertisers, especially autograph seekers who high profit from what he considered was a team effort made in the name of science and America. He made few public appearances and interviews, and accepted few public commissions.

Armstrong and Edmund Hillary had similar accolades: first on the moon, first up Everest. Ed Hillary was thrust into world fame in 1953. His climb was on the eve of the coronation of QEII and the synergy of the moment was possibly the apex of the Empire. Hillary wore his fame with a mix of studied nonchalance and respect for the respect he was shown. He didn’t seek the spotlight but was generous with it when there was the opportunity to do good and be inspirational. His face is on the NZ $5 bill, he became Ambassador to India, and gracefully participated in many public events and honors.

Neil Armstrong was called a “recluse’s recluse” and while he would have disagreed with this assessment, to my mind the bloke who gave us the profound words “one giant leap for mankind” – before disappearing from view – had a lot to offer the world.

Serendipitously we can thank accountants in Australia (what!?) for a lasting Armstrong legacy. The don’t-take-no-for-an-answer CEO of CPA Australia Alex O’Malley approached Armstrong to take part in a series of video interviews for a leadership series. O’Malley knew something that most other people didn’t: that Armstrong’s father was an auditor. The result is a beautifully produced 45 minute video interview with Armstrong laced together with JFK footage and lunar landings.

General Norman Schwarzkopf once said to me, “When given command, take control and do what’s right.” If greatness visits you one day, you don’t have to be a showman, but do step up, step out, step into it; the world needs you.

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