I never met Neil Armstrong. I saw him on television, of course, and that was a corker: his first step on the moon, broadcast live in 1969, which I viewed as a breathless seven-year-old.
Beyond that, the closest I came was a visit to the museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, that bears his name. I stopped on my way home from a business trip—it’s just off I-75 about an hour north of Dayton. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t there, and I doubt he rarely visited. Public acclaim wasn’t his style. I’m surprised he agreed to lend his name to the place.
So I settled for a peek at photos, childhood memorabilia, videos, a few spacesuits and uniforms, and the Gemini 8 space capsule in which he and Dave Scott nearly died in 1966. My visit came not long after I read Armstrong’s biography, First Man, by James R. Hansen. Thus my connection to Armstrong was as it is today—tenuous at best.
Among the many articles written in the wake of Armstrong’s death on Aug. 24 was a blog by author Margaret Dean Lazarus. She lamented the stories that claimed Armstrong was a shy man. In fact, he didn’t hesitate to speak his mind, as we saw when President Obama cancelled Project Constellation, NASA’s back-to-the-moon program, in 2010.
He was neither insecure nor arrogant—merely confident in his abilities (like most test pilots) and in those of the people he worked with (like most engineers). Armstrong knew the accomplishments for which he was lauded relied heavily upon a vast team of experts. In his view, it wasn’t right nor accurate to glory in the kudos heaped upon him after Apollo 11.
Armstrong practiced quiet leadership. He sought consensus when he could, was direct when he had to be, and had no interest in pretense or gamesmanship.
I think a lot of people striving to lead, or trying to connect with their audiences, could learn a lot from Armstrong. He won the right to speak his mind by speaking it when he had something to say, and always with honesty.
“His time hugging the corners of fame made him seem even more admirable as a man who refused to sell himself or his legacy out, no matter what temptations were available in a celebrity-crazed culture” wrote Gene Seymour in a CNN blog.
“For one spellbinding week 43 summers ago, Neil Armstrong did something that once seemed unimaginable. Since then, he lived his life in a way that now seems improbable.”