Lift over drag, also known as the L/D ratio, it’s the amount of lift generated by a wing or vehicle, divided by the aerodynamic drag it creates by moving through the air. In other words, it’s an equation for helping us learn how to fly, or in the case of a NASCAR driver, learn how not to.
Lift and drag are both naturally occurring phenomena of Leadership too––where leaders either create just the right amount of lift and drag to give perpetual flight to talent, or create the wrong balance between the two, causing people to frequently crash and burn.
As my weekends conclude, oddly enough, it’s a Monday morning meeting that gives me lift each week. A gift from a friend, a man whose talent and leadership helped America learn how to land the first man on the moon.
Fifteen years ago I met this humble nurturer, whose remarkable career and seventy five year old life story, will never be widely known. But in his own selfless journey, his weekly gift to humanity—me in particular—he inspires me, engaging my mind each time we meet. Which you guessed it, happens every Monday morning over breakfast.
While my unsung hero, retired NASA flight-test engineer John Perry, is not yet famous, the community in which we both live, is. For it lies just 30 miles south of NASA’s famed Armstrong Flight Research Center, where the world’s first astronauts and test pilots, first learned how to lead, and then, learned how to fly. It’s where guys like Neil frickin Armstrong, and a team of incredibly inspired men and women, together, learned how to go to, land on, and successfully come home from, both the dark and the light sides of the moon.
Don’t forget the vision of President John F. Kennedy either. Who asked the guys like Armstrong and Perry, not what their country could do for them, but what they “would” do for it. Armstrong and Perry, along with thousands of other slightly less famous NASA employees, took Kennedy’s monumental but universally loved mission, not only to heart, but to their minds, bodies, and souls too.
The beginning of that mission began as America’s X-15 program, a pre-cursor to Apollo 11. X-15 pilots and NASA engineers, tested the aerodynamics of sub-orbital earth orbit, and man’s physical and mental capacities at even higher altitudes. A mission, that as it progressed, helped American leadership learn the who, what, when, and most importantly, the whys of how to reach higher and higher into space. And for leaders at NASA, that meant everyone had to overcome not only the physical laws of gravity, but sometimes, the emotional scars from failing. Which under normal circumstances, might drag motivation down, rather than lift it up.
But not during Apollo. Because failure often meant improvement, even when things didn’t work out on the ground or in space. Perhaps, this is why things did get done at NASA. Because no one – leaders or otherwise – assumed they couldn’t do something, even if they couldn’t. Teams had tacit permission from leaders to implicitly, explicitly, and continuously make things better.
Continuous improvement at its finest; with just the right amount of lift over drag. Motivating employees to do good for each other, before doing good for themselves. Building upon confidence from yesterday, creating tomorrows better than today.
That’s my kind of joyful work. It’s also my Monday morning, take off and re-entry to begin each new week. It’s John Perry’s gift, created just for me, by a humble and selfless leader. An incredible human, whose personal journey inspires in its own right.
In 1959, at just nineteen years old—John, from America’s deep south— graduated from college with a degree in mathematics. Yes, I said that right, as in, he graduated from high school at fifteen. Even then, long before I knew him, John was that kind of smart, dedicated to that kind of improvement.
Immediately recruited by NASA after college, John left home to move across country to the dry lake beds of California’s high desert—where rain was, even at that time, as foreign to the “lakes” as man was to the moon.
Out of college, now working for NASA, John’s initial responsibility was to figure out how to match up and mate two objects orbiting in space. We’re not talking about meeting a friend at a diner located just off an eight lane superhighway––with directions how to get there just a phone call away. We’re talking about an aircraft leaving a moon, 283,000 miles away from earth, now looking for its mother ship––and man’s only ride home. This wasn’t looking for a needle in a haystack; this was looking for a needle, at the tip of another needle, in the middle of a very big haystack.
Pretty important stuff to get right. But just the right stuff for John and his teammates at NASA. Who made this engineering marvel work using their hands, their minds, and their trusty slide rules. You do know what a slide rule is, right? And you also know employees were once engaged at work?
Really America, it’s true. The leaders once gave employees implicit permission to put their entire mind, their entire heart, their entire body, and their entire soul into their daily work. And way back in the day, leaders at NASA looked for failures, to create successes.
I know this type of leadership thinking is out of earth’s orbit today. But this actually happened in my home town. Where John Perry and NASA leaders, constantly nurtured one another’s intrinsic motivation, to get the best results possible from their fellow man. They solved problems, rather than creating more of them; they refused to ignore those problems––because “failure was, indeed, not an option;” and they refused to offshore their problems––like the thousands of companies today that have lost their faith.
John’s team never knew they couldn’t go to the moon, they just knew they had to try. Which enabled the team and individuals to gain confidence in themselves, one another, and the organization as a whole.
On July 20th, 1969 Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, but took one very giant leap for mankind too. This was made possible because of many smaller leaps NASA teams took on earth. Continuous improvement to a known destination, with an unknown, but always improving journey.
A perpetual mathematician and problem solver, John is a curious and creative leader. And when it comes to using that talent to improve people, he has a heart of gold and frankincense, but mostly of myrrh. Myrrh he uses to anoint others, but never himself. Today, John helps people and companies maximize the talents they are blessed with just like he did as a NASA engineer.
If you’ll join John and I for breakfast early one Monday morning, at that quiet little café, off the not so super CA-14 highway, you’ll experience one of the great men, the world never knew. Where John is still lifting people up, never dragging them down.
John’s lift over drag isn’t just allowing me to fly today, it’s already taken mankind to a better place for tomorrow.