The Theory of Great Accomplishment

I recently had the amazing good fortune of sharing a meal with William Vaughan, PhD at the Marshall Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

I affectionately refer to Dr. Vaughan as the “smartest man in the world.”

William Vaughan, PhD is NASA Emeritus at the Space Center and reported to the celebrated Wernher Von Braun during our nation’s quest to send man to the moon. Von Braun was the Director of the Space Center, a renowned rocket scientist, and considered one of the important men of the 20th century.

Dr. Vaughan led the Natural Environment Design Requirements for space vehicles during his long and most impressive career. It is my understanding that nothing was built for space (then and since–including the International Space Station) until his division outlined the specific environmental design requirements involved around the various environmental stress placed upon space vehicles.

Dr. Vaughan humbly credits the successful launches to space to the thousands of dedicated people and engineers who worked tirelessly to make it happen. He reserves his highest praise to a single man who possessed an amazing ability to lead this effort, Wernher Von Braun.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Wernher Von Braun, he was simply the leading figure in the development of rocket technology and space science.

His team developed the rockets that launched the United States’ first space satellite and later as director of the newly-formed Marshall Space Flight Center, he was the architect of the Saturn V rocket which launched man to the moon. His personal story is a great read and I highly recommend it.

When Dr. Vaughan discovered that I was a professional sales and leadership performance coach, he excitedly told me that he had recently uncovered a copy of the only known speech that Von Braun ever delivered on leadership and management, and asked if I would like a copy to assist me in my professional pursuits. He also said that I was free to distribute it as I wished! True to his word, I had a scanned copy of it sitting in my email the very next morning. The text is as amazing today as it was when he delivered it on September 18, 1962 in French Lick, Indiana at the 16th National Conference on the Management of Research.

Dr. William Vaughan and I hope you find these thoughts useful in understanding the mindset of achieving perhaps the most difficult undertaking of man at that point in time, the goal of “Man on the Moon within a Decade.”

To accomplish this great feat, Von Braun mastered the art of leading people effectively.

NASA estimates there were 400,000 engineers, scientists, and technicians involved with the moon landings, including 7,000+ at the Marshall Space Center. Very few of whom had any space experience and none had previously designed a manned craft that had flown to outer space.

I am humbled and blessed to share my thoughts and some of Von Braun’s words on the art of leading people effectively.

Briefly, in Von Braun’s own words, which also displays his great sense of humor:

It takes a manager with a rare sort of ability to get a lot of work out of people and still keep them happy, or at least keep them from fighting in the halls.  And it is the same rare manager who can pass out the money, assign functions, allot office space, authorize carpets, and reorganize the entire outfit without anyone losing face, quitting, or getting drunk on the job.

It also takes a real managerial talent to pacify employees who often are harassed by headquarters, sometimes outwitted by industry, and who possess an unshakable conviction that management long ago lost its collective mind. 

But it is the greatest manager of all who can keep reasonable peace in the family after he has split all the annual resources among all the department heads…each of whom knows positively and absolutely that if he gets one fewer person or one less dime than he asks for, the whole program will immediately fall apart at the seams.

This great manager is sort of like a mother who has to divide five cherry tarts among eight children, with every child in the bunch hollering for his share, whether he likes cherries or not.

Like yourselves, I’ve seldom seen a department head yet–whether in industry or in government or in a university–who wasn’t desperate for more men, money, materials, maintenance, mathematicians, mind readers, magicians, and just plain miscellaneous.  They are equally fervent in their desire for fewer memos, fewer meetings, and–above all else–less management from on high.

As Von Braun also enjoyed math, I formulated his mighty 12-page speech into a seven-word math equation:

Effective Human Leadership = Overcoming Man’s Limiting Nature

EHL = OMLN2   

There are six human nature qualities Von Braun touched upon when discussing team management:

  1. People do not appreciate oversight.
  2. People always demand more budget.
  3. People always demand more staff.
  4. People always feel slighted when they don’t get the answer they want.
  5. People must feel appreciated.
  6. People need a strong vision.

The successful pursuit of putting man on the moon was completely reliant on overcoming these six limiting natures of man!

Placing this hypothesis in mathematical terms:

Leadership > Man’s Limiting Nature = Any Great Accomplishment

Meaning, any Great Accomplishment can be achieved when Leadership is greater than Man’s Limiting Nature. The Theory of Great Accomplishment.

Dr. Vaughan regaled me and my son with countless stories of Von Braun’s effective leadership style. We hope this post inspires the reader to greater levels of effective human leadership.

Let me know your thoughts and feedback. If you’d like to read more on my discussion with Dr. William Vaughan or read more of the speech Von Braun delivered in 1962, please reach out.

Tony Hagelgans is a certified Sales and Leadership Performance Coach with Southwestern Consulting in Nashville, TN.

Leave a Reply