Photo by NASA
Examining the work of those who’ve gone before us is one of the most impactful ways to expand our own knowledge and understanding.
We often think of great leaders as those who won wars or guided countries through troubled times. But there’s also much to learn from the people who oversaw someone of history’s greatest mega-management projects.
From them, we learn the science of operacy — how to get things done.
It doesn’t matter if the project you’re working on involves four people or only lasts three months. You can still improve your abilities by learning about what it takes to organize and persevere on a massive scale.
Personally, I look to four of the most significant management projects in U.S. history: the Apollo program, the Manhattan Project, the Panama Canal, and the Transcontinental Railroad. I recommend the following books as a starting point for anyone who wants to dive deep into the projects.
- Apollo by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox [The Apollo program]
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes [The Manhattan Project]
- The Path between the Seas by David McCullough [The Panama Canal]
- Nothing Like It In The World by Stephen Ambrose [The Transcontinental Railroad]
Each of these projects were incredible, bold, and beautiful in their own way. But their leaders also had several common traits we can learn from.
A taste for the future.
Someone had to imagine each project before it existed. And they had nothing to base their imagination on, because the ideas were so new and different.
Each project was initially underestimated, sometimes dramatically so.
For instance, the first research for the Manhattan project was done at a few universities by a relatively small group of scientists. It ended up employing 130,000 Americans at a final cost of $2 billion.
At the beginning of the Apollo program, the United States was incredibly inexperienced. “When John Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961 and said we were going to the moon, our total flight experience was one 15-minute suborbital flight.” – Dr. John W. Logsdon, Director of the Center for International Space and Technology Policy
The people involved in each project didn’t know what would be required, because there was nothing to compare it to. They were truly creating the future as they went along.
An understanding of operacy
All of these projects required massive amounts of manpower. And everyone involved had to be motivated, organized, fed. Naturally, each of the projects had an overarching military aspect to them.
Throughout history, militaries have really been the only organizations to continuously work at organizing, motivating, and deploying thousands of people at a time. They’ve studied how to operate at a large scale, because the consequences are often literally life or death.
When I joined the Army, I was initially surprised by how much effort they put into the food. You may not picture the Army having great food, but the meals are surprisingly good. That’s because the organization knows how important food is to morale.
Little things—things we take for granted—are often top priorities in the military. They even have mobile laundry platoons whose job is to wash clothes, even in remote war zones.
“There isn’t anything that affects a person’s well-being more than those things which the Quartermaster Corps has to do…and one of the things that affects his daily life, his health and comfort, is the way his clothes are taken care of by the laundries.” – Edmund Gregory, Quartermaster General 1940-1946.
It’s important to remember that even the grandest of schemes often comes down to execution on a granular level.
Perseverance from leaders and workers
The leaders of these projects undertook them with pride, bordering on hubris.
Laying railroad track across the country, splitting the atom, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, putting a man on the moon—these all required a leader with confidence in their ability to get the job done.
But confidence without perseverance would not have been enough. These achievements still required tremendous amounts of human willpower. Thousands of people died building the Panama Canal and Transcontinental Railroad. Setbacks, scandals, old technology, and disease all had to be overcome.
Accomplishing feats like this required both technical ingenuity and stamina. One without the other would never have sufficed.
Communication between multiple groups
Great leaders have an ability to communicate a vision and motivate their organization to achieve that vision. JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech immediately comes to mind.
But each project had someone at the helm who could communicate its importance, motivate people to push through difficulties, and accomplish the end goal.
Most leaders today don’t need to use the high rhetoric of a sitting president. But language matters. Communication truly makes a difference in a leader’s ability to motivate people. There’s nothing more important that being able to communicate what you’re doing in a concise, memorable, and even poetic way.
Acceptance of risk
No one knew that each of these projects could even be accomplished until the very end. In The Making of The Atomic Bomb, Rhodes makes it clear that the scientists themselves were never entirely sure the project would succeed—until the moment it did.
Risk is inherent in any monumental undertaking.
Good leaders understand that all they can do is take things step-by-step. NASA didn’t go to the moon all at once. They worked toward that goal for years, setting a series of milestones. Step 1: Fly to the moon. Step 2: Orbit the moon. Step 3: Land an unmanned aircraft on the moon. And so on. They knew failure was a possibility, but they accepted the risk and carried on regardless.
A systemwide view.
Building the Transcontinental Railroad wasn’t just about laying a certain amount of track. Building the Panama Canal didn’t just require moving a lot of dirt. Going to the moon and splitting atom weren’t accomplished by calculations alone.
All of these projects only succeeded because their leaders took a systemwide view of the venture.
The workers weren’t only battling the landscape in Panama, they were also battling yellow fever—a disease spread by mosquitoes. It was up to a U.S. Army captain named William Gorgas to create a strategy that eliminated mosquito breeding grounds, all while battling officials who incorrectly contended the disease was spread through other means. His eventual success, and the eradication of the disease, helped make the Panama Canal a reality.
A successful project is never about one thing. The best leaders are able to take a systemwide view and account for many different variables. True leaders take time to learn about those who came before them.
The lessons learned here may be at a much greater scale than anything you or I will ever undertake, but they still hold plenty of value for those who study them.