In order to inspire people the leader’s vision has to hold a promise—one that is bigger than the individual, division, and the CEO.  It has to be significant enough that people will believe in it, be proud to be a part of, and want to get behind.  It has to be something people are willing to sacrifice for, with the hope that someday they can say they were a part of something great.

John F. Kennedy was able to inspire such a vision in the American people.  In 1961, when Sputnik lifted the Russian Major Yuri Gagarine to orbit the earth as the first man in space, JFK gave America a vision.  He told America that Americans will send a man to the moon, and will bring him back safely.  He also told us that we would do so before the end of the decade.  Even though JFK died in November of 1963, America succeeded in fulfilling that vision in 1969.

Let’s break this vision statement down to understand why it was successful.  First let’s be clear on JFK’s vision.  Was it to put a man on the moon?  I don’t think so.  I believe his true vision was for America to demonstrate its superiority over the only other major super power at the time, and be recognized as the greatest nation in the world.  In his address on the Nation’s Space Effort at Rice University on September 12, 1962 he said “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”[1] If that was his vision, why not just say, “By the end of the decade America will be the best nation in the world, by gaining superiority over the Soviet Union”?  It is because superlatives are ambiguous and open to debate.  It is easy to claim to be the best nation in the world, but how do you demonstrate such a claim?  Furthermore, superiority over the Soviet Union might mean different things to different people.  To some it might mean military superiority.  To others it might mean economic superiority.  To others, it might mean political superiority. Still, others might claim we are already superior to the Russians.  Once we have settled on what is meant by superiority, what specifically are we supposed to do as followers to ensure that by the end of the decade we become recognized as the greatest nation in the world?  Expressing his vision in such a way enabled JFK to describe a very clear objective that, if met, would undoubtedly give us a major world advantage.    The first thing he did was express a vision that was tangible.  In addition to making it tangible, he made it a noble vision.  “For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.  We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding”.  Secondly, he made it very real and attainable by giving it a timeframe and a sense of urgency. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because the are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too.”   Now listen to the sense of urgency.  “It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”  Thirdly, he expressed a vision that followers could either directly or indirectly do something to assist in its success, and would directly benefit from.  If we go back to that same address at Rice University we find that once the President described the vision he spent a great deal of time detailing the accomplishments to date.  He talked about a Saturn C-1 booster rocket and the F-1 rocket engines.  He talked about a huge building to be constructed for the Saturn Assembly.  He spoke of the Mariner spacecraft that was on its way to Venus and satellites already in orbit.  He talked about the benefits those satellites were already providing for Americans.  Now, listen for the promise as he continues to describe future benefits.  “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.  Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains.”  Next he moved from the more lofty and abstract to the pragmatic.  “And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs.”  Finally, he was able to communicate it in such a way that every American could understand and remember.  I was only 8 years of age at the time, and I got it.  It was simple.  We were going to put a man on the moon!

With that vision President John F. Kennedy moved this nation into a direction that has changed the world in ways even he never dreamed possible.  His vision alone did not get us there.  What got us there was that Americans shared his vision.  Remember this was the turbulent 60s—the Vietnam era—the dark decade of Post World War II!  This was probably the most unlikely time that Americans would embrace spending money on space exploration.

Before I move on to the tale of the second President let me preface my comments by saying that I believe both of these Presidents were great leaders.  Both of these Presidents were excellent in communicating their vision and objectives, and both of them were able to inspire those they led.  Leaders cannot however, rely solely on these skills.  They must also employ certain principles to make their vision become a shared one.

This next tale is similar in one significant way – it involved space.  In his address to the Nation on National Security in March of 1983, President Ronald Reagan spoke of a defense initiative that involved a complex, high tech deterrent system to be built in space.[2] This initiative that the President coined the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) quickly became known as “Star Wars”.  As with President Kennedy’s stated vision of putting a man on the moon, I am confident that President Reagan’s vision went far beyond SDI.

If we compare the two tales at the stated vision level we find some similarities.  During both periods the US was dealing with economic recession.  The Cold War and the threat of nuclear attack had become part of our paradigm as a country.  In the early 80s, the US was still reeling from the lasting impacts of the Vietnam War, and military spending was not a priority of the previous administration.  If ever there was a time for the American people to share a vision that involved military defense from space, it was then.  Interestingly, many Americans viewed the whole concept as fantasy, and instead of pulling a nation together to move toward a common goal, it created division.  Why?  Without dissecting the vision completely, I will offer just one of the principles mentioned earlier that was not followed.  It was not easy to understand!  No matter how many graphics and simulations the President and his Administration used we just did not get it.  At the time this occurred I worked for one of the largest technology companies in the world, and I did not understand it.  How were the majority of Americans, who had only a very passing understanding of technology, going to understand this concept?  It is very difficult for people to share a vision when they cannot see it themselves.  Because President Reagan was unable to communicate his vision in a way that the American people could understand, it failed to become a shared vision.  In fact, most of us were convinced that the President himself did not understand it.

The Rest of the Story

Earlier I mentioned that I did not believe SDI was President Reagan’s real vision.  Nine months prior to his address to the Nation on National Security, President Reagan gave an address to the British House of Commons.[3] During that speech he talked about the “Evil Empire” of Soviet tyranny (He gave a similar address to the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983).  In his address he asked, “Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?”  He described our mission as “to preserve freedom as well as peace.”  He speaks of his belief that the world was at a turning point, drawing stark contrasts between free and closed societies.  “…It is the democratic countries that are prosperous and responsive to the needs of their people.  And one of the simple but overwhelming facts of our time is this; of all the millions of refugees we’ve seen in the modern world, their flight is always away from, not toward the Communist world.”  It is clear that the President was trying to communicate a vision of freedom.  He used the word free or freedom no less than 17 times in the speech.  It is also clear that his vision was meant as much for the Soviet people as others.  The following excerpt provides a message of hope to the Soviet people.

“This is not cultural imperialism; it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity.  Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences.  It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.  Who would voluntarily choose not to have the right to vote, decide to purchase government propaganda handouts instead of independent newspapers, prefer government to worker-controlled unions, opt for land to be owned by the state instead of those who till it, want government repression of religious liberty, a single political party instead of a free choice, a rigid cultural orthodoxy instead of democratic tolerance and diversity.”

At a time when folks at home seemed somewhat apathetic toward President Reagan’s vision he was busy creating a shared vision at the world level. In May of 1988 he gave an address to the students at Moscow State University, USSR.[4] Some argue that this will go down in history as his most famous speech.  It was a masterpiece with regard to communicating a vision that could be shared.  The vision: that tyranny will one day be vanquished as Christian liberty advances across the globe.  For the sake of brevity I will hit the highlights, and try to point out some important principles.  He starts by developing a common ground from which to work by conjuring up one of the first contacts between the two countries.  In it he describes how the Russians took a group of American explorers in, “and together, with native inhabitants, held a prayer service on the ice.”  Next he appeals directly to the students in language they can understand with a message of hope when he tells them “one of the largest personal computer firms in the United States was started by two college students, no older than you, in the garage behind their home.”  Next he introduces a sense of urgency by depicting the inevitability of this change.  He describes the power of economic freedoms occurring throughout Asia and Latin America, and states that “We Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom.”  Next he ties in the importance of religion and faith as a necessary ingredient.  “Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you’ll see dozens of synagogues and mosques – and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality, worshipping together.”  In fact he spends the next quarter of his address defining freedom in many different ways.  He wants to make sure the vision is understood this time.  Finally, he describes the vision once again in a very tangible way, and metaphorically with the following two excerpts.

“I can tell you that nothing would please my heart more than in my lifetime to see American and Soviet diplomats grappling with the problem of trade disputes between America and a growing, exuberant, exporting Soviet Union that had opened up to economic freedom and growth”.

“In this Moscow spring, this May 1988, we may be allowed that hope – that freedom, like a fresh green sapling planted over Tolstoi’s grave, will blossom forth at least in the rich fertile soil of your people and culture.”

In this address, President Reagan did two things.  First, he show the Soviet people that, while he hated the “Evil Empire” of dictatorship, he cared deeply for them, and only wanted the best for them.  Secondly, he presented his world vision in such a way that they could, and perhaps, wanted to share in it.

Interestingly enough, while President Reagan was unsuccessful in inspiring his own countryman to move on his vision, he was successful in the East.  While many Americans believed SDI was fantasy, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took the threat seriously.  While many Americans took the promise of freedom as a given, the Soviet people and East Germans grasped hold of President Reagan’s vision with the preciousness it deserved.

In summary, the tale of two Presidents shows us that there are certain principles that must be followed to help ensure a leader’s vision becomes shared within the organization.

  1. It must be clear, understandable, and tangible.
  2. It must be big enough to inspire followers, yet achievable.
  3. It must have a noble purpose.
  4. It must have a sense of urgency and a timeframe.
  5. It must be expressed in such a way that followers identify their role in its achievement.
  6. It must be expressed in a way that shows followers how they will benefit.
  7. There must be a Promise

© Mark P. Loschiavo


[1] John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/003POF03SpaceEffort09121962.htm

[2] University of Texas Archives: http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1983/32383d.htm

[3] Ronald W. Reagan
Address to Members of the British Parliament
June 8, 1982: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Europe/WM106.cfm

[4] University of Texas Archives: Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the Students and Faculty at Moscow State University, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1988/053188b.htm

May 31, 1988

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