John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States – from January 20, 1961 until his assassination on November 22, 1963.
As far as I know, your death is my earliest childhood recollection of an ‘event’. I don’t really remember details, more that I was whisked away from the lounge and taken to my room because ‘something terrible’ had happened.
Fast forward 50 years and as a sales, management and leadership trainer, I seek material from many sources. But I really only have to look in one place to find inspiration on the art of motivation through communication. And that is your speech, we choose to go to the moon, delivered before 35,000 souls in Rice Stadium, Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962.
First, you make everyone belong; belong both to their own group and to the broader community: “We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength…”
The story-telling, your ability to bring messages to life, is astonishing: “…condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power. Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.”
You have a real desire to acknowledge those who have already paved the way for us: “Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it – we mean to lead it.” (I so love that sentence “…does not intend to founder in the backwash…).
You fire people’s desires – not by promising it all on a plate, but from the promise of victory that can only come from navigating a difficult path: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they 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…”
You make incredible statistics live in people’s minds by comparing them with everyday images – and with respect to the spot you were standing right at that moment: “In the last 24 hours we have seen facilities now being created for the greatest and most complex exploration in man’s history. We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket, many times as powerful as the Atlas which launched John Glenn, generating power equivalent to 10,000 automobiles with their accelerators on the floor. We have seen the site where the F-1 rocket engines, each one as powerful as all eight engines of the Saturn combined, will be clustered together to make the advanced Saturn missile, assembled in a new building to be built at Cape Canaveral as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field.”
You deliver lines that are truly breath-taking in their creativity: “But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented…”
(the words: “some of which have yet to be invented” I particularly revere).
Finally, I defy anyone who stood in that field all those years not to want to join the journey, as you conclude with: “Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
That one speech contains all the ingredients I need in order to develop business leaders’ ability to communicate important messages in challenging or pivotal times.
As a fan of the early series of Star Trek, I was fascinated by the concept of the transporter. And, if I could choose one moment in history to which I could be energized, it would be to that field in that stadium in that year of 1962 – so that I could witness the power of true vision-based leadership.
Returning to slightly less challenging journeys, on my recent visit to Chartwell, home of Winston Churchill, I was enthralled by the sight of the US Congress document, declaring the great man to have been awarded honorary citizenship of the United States. As my eyes reached the foot of the page, I took in your own signature and the date: April 9, 1963. A few seconds passed whilst I made the calculation, then it dawned on me that this was only 227 days ahead of what would be the day of your death. I shivered, ran my finger down the glass case and turned away.
Thank you, JFK. My training wouldn’t be the same without you.