If a Tree Falls In a Forest … (A Tribute to the Humility of Neil Armstrong, and a Call to Ego-Free Leadership)

Lee DeRemer Leadership

If I achieve great things, and no one notices, did they still happen? Of course they did, so why the obsession with recognition? Why the concern over whether “we matter?”
Do we “matter?” I hope so. I believe so. But why, exactly, do we matter, and why should we matter? Our culture is absorbed with success (as it defines it) and impact (as it defines it)…. And praise for both. What if achievement and impact came without the fame? What if we actually said—insisted, repeatedly—“No” to the call of public adulation?
Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, aged 82 years. He did a remarkable thing. He became the first of 12 people to step onto the moon. He and his crew employed their considerable talents, years of preparation, and no small amount of courage just to try it. Thousands of NASA professionals did their part to make it possible, and the nation committed enormous resources to meet President Kennedy’s decade-old challenge. Please enjoy the two minute tribute above.
Well…. after his unique experience, Neil Armstrong did another remarkable thing: He went home. He returned to private life. He didn’t cash in to seek public office. He didn’t cash in to seek money. And, he didn’t cash in to seek fame. He refused invitations from both political parties, he refused corporate sponsorships, and instead taught aerospace engineering near his home, at the University of Cincinnati. This Eagle Scout / Aeronautical Engineer from Purdue and USC / Korean War Vet / Navy Test Pilot / NASA Astronaut / Farmer didn’t just decline to seek fame. He refused it when it came to him.
How comfortable are we if our success is not praised, or not even noticed?
Where are today’s leaders who will achieve goals for the inherent value of the pursuit and capture of an accomplishment? To be fair, many are seeking more than mere success, so today’s “enlightened” have advanced the discussion from ‘success’ to ‘significance,’ which is also fine, because they are concerned with positive impact – a legacy that leaves the world better than it might otherwise have been.
Quickly, though, the discussion too often morphs into one in which the emphasis is on receiving recognition for the significant legacy. Armstrong eschewed self-aggrandizement as somehow unseemly. Can we build a great company, or advance to high elected office, or win a professional sport’s highest accolade, or build a church, or make an unimaginable scientific achievement….. and after doing so, walk away gracefully and without fanfare? In each of those and other fields of life, the answer is, increasingly, “no, not really.”
Are we really so addicted to affirmation? Contrast Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s achievement and his reaction described above, to the following: In my home town, the local paper celebrated– ironically on the same front page on which it lamented the death of Armstrong– the arrival of the new class of freshmen at the local college. I’m sure this article didn’t do justice to the total experience, but consider its emphasis: A sophomore said to the reporter, in discussing what his particular group did for the new arrivals, “We don’t lift anything; we just cheer.” Seriously? The second in a string of generations who received trophies in little league simply for participating now gets cheered—for showing up? Yes. In fact, the article continues in salutary fashion that the upperclassmen shouted to the freshmen “that they had made it.” One might charge, “Lee, they’re young; give ‘em a break.”
Okay, let’s look at accomplished professionals. … successful politicians who can’t walk away from a crowd or a microphone… the corporate leader who can’t walk away from the power of the board room… the screen or music artist who can’t let go of the adoration… pastors who are hooked on the praise of the congregation … the sports figure who can’t accept life away from the trophies and the interviews. Can there be equal joy in these accomplishments with no news articles, no interviews, and no adulation? Could we recognize the inherent value in our achievement? In our pursuit? In our selves? Have we really forgotten how to live and to lead for their own sake?
I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s focus on people, not on programs. And recognition was the least of her concerns. She mattered, and her legacy mattered, but only because each person she helped mattered first. She believed — and I do — that we matter because we matter first to the God Who created us and Who loves us and Who invites us to love Him back. Her work was, and our work is, intrinsically valuable. Programs and visions are valuable, but only because what they represent is valuable, first. Whatever amount of success or significance we achieve does matter, but not because our culture or our peer says so. For many of us, success is getting through the day, and we need not be judged. What matters is that our success—huge organizational wins, or surviving the week–is in service that betters others.
Neil Armstrong achieved something incredible. He was part of the beginning of space exploration and all its spin-off benefits. He provided a great service and left a remarkable legacy. Can we lead at work and at home, and be content with the level of relative obscurity that marked Armstrong’s last forty, but still productive, impactful years? Would more light shine on others if leaders led for its intrinsic value and left the results to work themselves out? In our professional lives and in our personal lives, I have a growing sense that more happiness and fulfillment exists in our appreciation of the intrinsic value of our chosen pursuits, without concern for whether someone else acknowledges them. We might have cheerleaders, but what a shame if we are addicted to their praise.

Trees do fall in the forest, even when no one knows.

Author Lee DeRemer is an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., and a former professor of Ethics and Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He retired from the Air Force after 26 years of flying, command, and staff assignments and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in values-driven leadership at Benedictine University. This post was republished with permission from www.DangerousU.com. 
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