Way Back Weekend: Astronauts, Cronkite and Watson

Posted 07.20.2009

Rockybull When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. (I spent a lot of time watching TV, period.)  They used to have a segment on the show called “Peabody’s Improbable History,” in which the highly intelligent talking dog, Mr. Peabody, and his boy, Sherman would use their WABAC machine to travel back in time. The events of this past weekend took me way back to my childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In thinking about them, I learned a little bit about more about how some of the things that happened back then shaped me as an adult and a leader. In particular, I’m talking about the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, the death of TV anchorman Walter Cronkite and the completely improbable (Mr. Peabody would have loved it) performance of 59 year old Tom Watson at the British Open.

So, jump into the WABAC machine with me for a few minutes and let’s see what we can learn.


Moonwalk1 My mom likes to tell the story of how she held one month old me in front of the TV on May 5, 1961 so I could later say that I saw the first American, Alan Shepard, launched into space on his Mercury rocket.  A little over eight years later, I was sitting in the den of my grandparents’ house in Petersburg, VA watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  I’ve been hooked on these guys my entire life. They are the heroes of my boyhood.  Every year when July 20 comes around, I think of that night in Petersburg watching that grainy image on TV.

If you want to remember what it was like back in the era of the Apollo program or learn what it was like in the first place, take a look at the HBO miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, or watch the movie, Apollo 13. That was the mission in which an onboard explosion forced the crew and the NASA engineers to hang in there and improvise for seven days to bring the crew safely back to earth. I remember staying home from school the last day of the mission in April 1970 to watch the reentry and splashdown on TV. The ingenuity, problem solving skills, grace under pressure and bravery that all of the people from NASA displayed in that era still inspire me.  Leadership lessons?  Dream big and don't quit.

Walter Cronkite

Waltercronkite1 CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was, for many people, the voice that brought the astronauts into our living rooms.  In reading the various tributes to him over the past few days, I was struck by how often I saw him referred to as “avuncular.”  I Googled his name and that word together and got something like 22,000 results. Avuncular is a word that I’ve heard for years but I don’t think I’ve ever used it myself in a sentence.  So, I looked it up and, not surprisingly, it means to have the qualities of a benevolent, tolerant uncle. The Latin root of the word actually means maternal uncle. That sums up Cronkite’s connection with the public really well. Whether it was reporting the death of JFK with tears in his eyes, giving his straightforward opinion on Vietnam or exclaiming,  “Oh boy!” when the Eagle landed on the moon, Cronkite was real. He always seemed to want the best for his country and its people and the people responded to that.

When I was a student at the Kennedy School of Government in the mid-1980’s, I had the opportunity to see Cronkite in person. There was a large event in the school’s Forum with about a thousand people in the audience and a panel of luminaries speaking on the topics of the day. During the questions from the audience segment, someone stepped up to the floor microphone to ask a question. As soon as the first couple of words were spoken, every head in that room snapped over to that microphone because it was Walter Cronkite and his voice was unmistakable.  It was the only time in two years of events at the Kennedy School that I saw a questioner interrupted by spontaneous applause and a standing ovation.  He smiled, acknowledged the applause, waited for the crowd to settle and asked his question. He was an intelligent, gracious and dignified man.  Leadership lessons?  Caring and authenticity matter.

Tom Watson

Tomwatson Another great passion of my boyhood was watching Jack Nicklaus battle the golfers of his era for major championship titles.  Tom Watson was about 15 years younger than Nicklaus and gave him a run for his money with great frequency back in the 1970’s.Their duels at the British Open are legendary.

If you’re paying any attention at all to sports this week, you know that the 59 year old Watson came within one putt of winning the 2009 British Open. After leading at different points throughout the four days of the tournament, he was an eight feet away on the 72nd hole from being the oldest major champion in any sport ever.  His nerves overcame him, he missed the putt and then lost the tournament in decisive fashion in a four hole playoff with Stewart Cink.

As Tom Boswell, so eloquently writes in the Washington Post, Watson won in defeat.  Watching him miss that putt and then how he conducted himself as his wheels came off in the playoff, I was deeply moved by the grace and dignity with which Watson handled himself.  Boswell quotes the line from Watson at his post tournament press conference which I found particularly moving for its level of honesty, self awareness and personal accountability:

"It would've been a hell of a story, wouldn't it? It wasn't to be. And yes, it's a great disappointment. It tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It's not easy to take," Watson said. "I put myself in position to win, but I didn't do it on the last hole."

Leadership lesson?  Acknowledge your mistakes with honesty and grace.

Every generation has its heroes who shape the way we think and act in ways that we’re probably not even aware of.  The leadership exhibited by these people almost subliminally seeps into our hearts and minds and we pick up on that in our actions in some small way. At least I hope that’s the case.  This past weekend, I spent some wonderful moments revisiting some of the heroes of my childhood and reconnecting with some of the qualities in them that I admire. It makes me wonder a little bit about who my boys are going to look back on with fondness when they’re in their forties.

Who are your heroes and what have you learned from them?  Who are your candidates for the heroes of future generations?