Thursday, January 29, 2009 by Dave Blum

While at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Tuesday, in Washington, D.C., I re-watched President Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech to Congress about the space race with the Soviets.   Although I’d seen before it on several occasions, this was the first time I’d watched JFK’s speech from a team building perspective.  Kennedy begins, of course, with his celebrated declaration:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

The 60’s, of course, were smack in the middle of the Cold War; not surprisingly then, the President’s space aspirations expressed a clear sense of international competition:  beating the Russians to the moon.   Says Kennedy:

“Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”

Minutes later, however, Kennedy contrasts the competitive language with this more tempering remark:

“But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”

As the owner of a company that runs corporate team building activities, I find Kennedy’s speech interesting not only for its power and eloquence, but for what it says about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Kennedy skillfully plays both sides of the motivation coin:  he urges us both to beat an external enemy, the Soviets (extrinsic), as well as to make these efforts for their own sake — because it’s important to mankind (intrinsic).

Leading team building exercises requires a similar sensitivity:  balancing extrinsic rewards (compensation, recognition, etc.) with intrinsic rewards (performing the task because it has a larger meaning).

A pity we weren’t afforded a longer look at Kennedy’s other team building ideas.