Building Cathedrals and Sending Rockets to the Moon. Necessary Urban Myths?

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Image source NASA Public Domain

If you have ever taken part in a ‘Vision and Values Workshop’ or any sort of ‘Corporate Morale Booster’, you may have heard the President Kennedy, the Janitor and the Man on the Moon story?

No? Let me enlighten you…….

“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon”. Much loved by Leadership & Management Consultants, this story is usually delivered with the assured confidence of it being an unquestionable truth.

It goes along the lines of:…. during a visit to Cape Canaveral in the mid 1960’s, President Kennedy was touring the facility when he met a man in overalls. He asked the man “What do you do here?”, to which the man replied, “Earning a living”. Later on President Kennedy met another man in overalls and asked him what he did, the reply this time “I’m clearing away the garbage”.

Finally the President met another man in overalls enthusiastically sweeping the floor and asked him what he did. With a big smile on his face the man replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon Mr President”

The Leadership and Management Consultant will follow this story with some explanation about how you can motivate your staff by having a clear vision of where the organisation is going. A clearly articulated vision will (to quote) move people from ‘just turning up for the pay check’, to highly motivated ‘brand ambassadors’ . That’s all great, and I get the sentiment, but….. I really don’t buy the President Kennedy and the Janitor story. Here’s why:

  1. This was a government facility. If it gets cleaned at all, it’s usually done after hours,
  2. For a Presidential visit, the place will have been spotless for weeks. It’s the same thinking that’s behind why The Queen thinks the world smells of fresh paint, and
  3. If you’ve ever watched American TV drama or films (like the epic 24 series) you will know that a janitor hanging around in the middle of a Presidential visit, is definitely an assassin. The Secret Service would have ‘taken him out’ long before any contact with the President.

The discussion on the origins of the story is worth a look.

St Paul’s Cathedral Dome, London

Now then, how do you fancy a British version of the story, from about 300 years earlier?

You can use the, Sir Christopher Wren, the Stone Mason and St Paul’s Cathedral, story to impress any Leadership & Management Consultant that rattles out the Man on the Moon version. Here goes…….

“I’m building a Cathedral” It’s basically the same story……..

Following the Great Fire of 1666 Sir Christopher Wren supervises the rebuilding of numerous London Churches and the big one, St Paul’s Cathedral. One day in 1671, during an unannounced visit, he speaks with some of the stone masons and receives a variety of responses to the question, “what is your job here?”. The most impressive response he gets, from the most productive stone mason (with the gleam in his eye) is; “I’m building a Cathedral to The Almighty”. Now that’s a huge vision and mission statement!

Obviously its a bit of a challenge to prove the authenticity of a 300 year old verbal exchange on a London building site, but I really want to believe it. I also like the idea that the President Kennedy and the Janitor story has been ‘borrowed’ from the ancient British version.

There are a couple of versions of the story, some talk about bricklayers and others stone masons. This article cites a book by Bruce Barton (‘What can a Man Believe’) published in 1927 as inspiration for the story, which is about as far back as I’ve been to trace it.

Urban Myths or Inspirational Stories? There is a risk of me looking a bit sceptical by questioning the authenticity of theses stories. I do very much like the idea that a very clear and well communicated vision will inspire people to great things. If you are freezing cold, sitting it a puddle of rainwater, cutting a lump of stone, the vision of ‘building a cathedral to The Almighty’ (or ‘putting a man on the Moon’) can be a great source of inspiration and motivation. Nothing wrong in that if it works for you.

I do however think that any vision needs to be connected to the here and now. I’m far more inclined to believe in a vision that has ambition and passion, but also a bit of humility. I don’t really want it wrapped up in someone else’s romanticised ideas, particularly if it is based on urban myths trotted out by Leadership & Management Consultants. Or maybe I’ve been around too long and I’ve just become sceptical?

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. A clear vision of the direction an organisation is headed in, and what it hopes to achieve is essential. Lots of people do like to know where they are going.
  2. The easier that vision is to understand and share (communicate), the more likely people are to accept it.
  3. Inspirational stories are great way of getting the message across, but you might what to check the source of the material.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

10 Responses

  1. The guy with the brush was Sgt ‘Singer’ Harrison an engineer from Carmarthen. A few days before his moment of fame, Singer had been reprimanded for punching FLt Bixy Heatherford in an altercation at a local bar. Singer was being kept our of sight, to fulfill his punishment of sweeping all four hangers. The visiting party had taken a detour, as was typical of Kennedy, who came face to face with Singer.

    Kennedy did ask what he was doing, but it didn’t go like the leadership myth. Feeling particularly hard done by, Singer was faced with this smiley dick who, as he stood there holding a broom, asked him the proverbial question. To which Singer looks down at his broom, up at Kennedy, back to the broom, back to Kennedy and with typical West Walian cynicism says, putting men on the moon. Tutted, sighed and wandered off shaking his head, sweeping his floor.

    Leadership is the left overs of a medieval pseudo religious social control fantasy, visions are the same as hallucinations and neither make much difference to people with real jobs to do. And I may have used a little artistic licence to make a point!

      1. As for Christopher Wren, the workman was probably a slate cutter called Idris from a small town called Llanberis. You know the place; it’s where God makes his own towering Cathedrals!

  2. johnbromford

    Thanks for another thought provoking ‘laugh out loud’ Blog Chris.

    A quick, but admittedly unrepresentative (my wife Jo), survey has revealed that people who work anti-social hours for minimum wage pay cleaning up other people’s mess in order to put food in their children’s mouths probably don’t give much thought to the mission or vision of the company who pays their sub-contracted employer!

  3. Scott

    I believe the janitor quite is a myth built from Kennedy’s quote in a high level meeting attended by a Writer and after much frustration that the talking heads at NASA and the scientists were feeding him ambiguous informations and when they ultimately made a commitment, they failed to deliver. Kennedy, in frustration (and in 1961) said something to the effect of “give me somebody, anybody who will give me the facts, anybody, heck, give me a janitor!” I think the myth grew from there.

  4. […] The story behind ‘failure is not an option’ is worth reading (link here). It apparently came about from an interview with Apollo 13 Flight Controller Jerry Bostick who was asked what happened when things went wrong, “did people panic?” The answer was “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out the options and failure wasn’t one of them”. Thanks to Roxanne Persaud (@Failwise) for alerting me to what feels like another NASA inspired urban-myth. […]

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