JFK gets a lot of good press for managing to land a man on the moon, yet there is a part of it that I find truly remarkable, its expressed in this well-known anecdote.

Journalist enters the NASA space station in heat of the space station sometime in the mid-60’s and sees a guy sweeping the floor.
“What are you doing, sir?” asks the journalist the sweeper.
“I´m helping to put a man on the moon” answers the gent with broom in hand.

Now, one might wonder what brings the journalist to ask a such an obvious question and conveniently getting such an astonishing reply and find that letting this snippit go viral (in the 60’s sense) smells of spin. Yet, even this particular incident was staged, the message stays the same. To achieve something large and complex is a broad effort and the leader of the country values every piece in the puzzle. That is an insight that is often neglected these days and the reason why the American moon mission has made it into this leadership series.

LEADERSHIP TYPE: Societal leadership, group leadership
GOAL: Global leadership, winning the space race
PERFORMED BY: John Fitzgerald Kennedy as President of the USA
CONTEXT: Cold war space race, post WWII nation building
ACTION: Issued a statement to ‘before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth’ and assigned equivalent research budget to NASA, creating the Apollo programmes.
METHODS: Politics, operational insight and full-circle implementation
Moonlanding in 1969, first man on the Moon and returned safely to Earth.
Apollo missions and continued focus on outer space programmes.
Captivated the public imagination and rallied behind a cause ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon,’
TRANSFERABLE PRINCIPLE: With an ambitious vision, set smart and realistic goals, enable the people and make their role in the big vision clear

Not all societal leadership is performed by formal leaders. Though Gandhi was a part of the Indian establishment and his leadership later became formalised, his major feat was not in the leadership role he was given, but in the one he created.

Lets propel back to the early 19th century, India has been a British Colony for all of living memory and most of deployment of power happens through military means. Enter Gandhi and the paradigm shifts. This lawyer and activist exercised the psychological resilience to imagine, believe in and fight for Indian independence, and his means for doing that was stepping out of the current system of thinking: Through nonviolence.

This must have been quite a mental leap for his contemporaries and here we arrive at what might have been Gandhi’s greatest achievement: He promoted the abstract and complex idea of Indian independence, yet he connected it to the very tangible issue of textile self-sufficiency and it is immediately possible to capture the minds of the whole country.

The strength is that Gandhi impersonates the resilience needed to make his vision come true, in:

– showing himself working the spinning wheel and promoting the local fabric Khaddar in the face of British attempts to create Indian dependence on textile imports;
– disassociates himself with worldly goods (sign of non-corruptibility);
– very publicly practices the Hindu commandment of non-violence.

LEADERSHIP TYPE: Societal leadership, group leadership
GOAL: Peace, Indian independence
PERFORMED BY: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aka. Mahatma Gandhi
CONTEXT: Indian independence fight
ACTION: Combining leadership of a movement with a tangible example, the textile production. The promotion of khaddar and the ‘branding’ with a loom provided an image of the way out of colonial dependency.
METHODS: Passive resistance, campaigns, activism, civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authorities, pragmatic examples, walk the walk, personal integrity, capture the imagination of a nation
Indian independence in 1947.
Captivated the imagination of the world and coined passive resistance.
TRANSFERABLE PRINCIPLE: With an abstract goal, combine it with something tangible that expresses the same thing and live your ideals

Volkwagen’s ‘Think Small’ campaign is included in this leadership series under societal leadership as an example of how commercial interests and a societal mood can be interlinked and strengthen one another.

In the 1950’s and 60’s prosperous years, consumerism and individualism was on the rise, this was the concretisation of the strong sense of ‘The Good Life’ in a society have experienced two world wars in living memory. Notably, ‘The Good Life’ was associated with private ownership of property, electric domestics – and vehicles!
Volkswagen had the perfect answer to that in the tiny affordable car we all know as the ‘beetle’. Developing this type of small car was not only well placed strategic product development, the marketing also embodied the societal mood. The ‘Think Small‘ campaign suggested the ‘beetle‘ as the material answer to your desire of private car ownership.

LEADERSHIP TYPE: Industry leadership, Societal leadership
GOAL: Product development and sales
PERFORMED BY: Volkswagen GmbH
CONTEXT: Post-WWII boom, 1960´s vision of ‘The Good Life’
ACTION: Car design marketed as palatable and affordable for a significant volume of society
METHODS: Full circle design from car manufacture to print media, associating the VW with private ownership, freedom, wide access to wealth
Recognisable brand and wide market penetration
Enhanced private vehicle ownership
Expanded mobility on a national and international level
TRANSFERABLE PRINCIPLE: Understand the cultural behaviour of your consumers and anchor your product or service within that
Then, tell that story and spread it widely

Leadership series: Societal leadership