3 Leadership Lessons City Leaders Can Take From Neil Armstrong’s Moon Landing

Civic leaders can take away three critical leadership lessons from late NASA Commander Neil Armstrong on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

Many have written about the leadership lessons of Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts of Apollo 11, the first spaceship to reach the moon. As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing recently occurred, Forbes noted in its leadership piece that Armstrong was “emotionally remote” with his two fellow astronauts.

But Armstrong’s words, and the words of aerospace colleagues (young and old) and former classmates, reveal a leader of obvious emotion. For leaders in public service, there are many lessons to be had from the commanding Apollo 11 astronaut that shared the first moon walk on July 20, 1969. Here are three key leadership lessons for municipal leaders, both elected and staff directors.

Lesson 1: Recognize Your Team

While Armstrong landed the lunar module, “the Eagle,” on the moon’s surface, Michael Collins remained back on the Apollo 11 command vessel to make sure the moonwalkers ultimately made it home to their families.

The role was so essential, that Armstrong’s mother Viola asked the crowd celebrating the moon landing outside her home in Wapakoneta, Ohio, on July 16, 1969:

Everybody just keep praying so we can get them off the moon and safely back to Earth,” she said.

Wapakoneta, where Neil Armstrong lived and attended high school, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing though a series of events. The town of 10,000 people is receiving a lot of media attention for its anniversary efforts, including rocket launches with students that provide hands-on rocket science opportunities as they commemorate history.

Armstrong’s support of the Apollo Space Program and human space exploration continued long after he retired from NASA, including testifying against grounding of the space shuttle program in 2011. The ‘press shy’ Armstrong urged the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to support a plan for NASA to get Americans back in space.

“Armstrong did it right...He was a great pilot who always recognized there was an army of engineers behind him. After Apollo he taught at (the University of Cincinnati), but he was content not to be in the limelight,” said Rod Cox, 64, a retired aerospace engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force base, while visiting Wapakoneta’s Armstrong Air & Space Museum for the anniversary.

This week in Cape Canaveral, Collins praised Armstrong and said he didn’t feel slighted at all not being part of the moon walk, calling his Apollo 11 commander the ideal spokesman for the mission.

Lesson 2: Its Not About You

“It’s hard to explain how we felt,” Herb Lunz, a former classmate of Neil Armstrong’s, said of his family as they watched the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Like many others, Lunz told the Ohio Times Reporter that Armstrong did not seek notoriety. Armstrong stopped autographing pictures or memorabilia in 1995 because he found out people were making money off of his name, according to Melba Lunz, Herb’s wife.

Funnily enough, he lived his life like his high school senior yearbook quote,” Lunz said. ’He thinks, he acts, ‘tis done.’”

Incredible achievements are not about commanders, or leaders. When Armstrong took man’s first lunar steps, he said,"That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind,” according to Space.com. He recognized that in doing his job -- as mission commander of the first moon landing and first spacewalk -- he represented all mankind. He never lost sight that the victory belonged more to it, as well as the United States, than to him personally.

Armstrong’s statement is even more profound after seeing the video NASA just released of his simulated view as he quickly switched the Eagle to manual maneuvers to avoid huge boulders he saw in the Sea of Tranquility (i.e., landing path).

Five years ago, Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, called his mission commander, “one of the best, certainly the best test pilot, I feel, that was selected for the NASA program.”

Lesson 3: Realize the Mission Goes Beyond the Accomplishment

Neil Armstrong went to the moon to prove successful spaceflight was possible, walk on it and conduct experiments for future space exploration and colonization. But when he was walking on the moon with so much to do in so little time, he paused to reflect back on home.

I was amazed that it was the only beautiful thing to be seen. It is, in fact, the only place that we as a human race have right now to live on. It is a beautiful spot and certainly deserves being saved,” he told the crowd on his celebrated visit to his hometown Wapakoneta that following September.

Andrea Fox is Editor of Gov1.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.