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The Janitor Who Helped Put a Man on the Moon


In 1962, President John F. Kennedy visited NASA for the first time. During his tour of the facility, he met a janitor who was carrying a broom down the hallway. The President then casually asked the janitor what he did for NASA, and the janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Take a moment, and reflect on this idea. The janitor knew something that most of us struggle with, the purpose of his work. He kept the building clean so that the scientists, engineers, and astronauts could focus on their mission of putting “man on the moon”. They did not have to worry about spending their time on trashcans, bathrooms, or hallways. He did that for them. He saw where his contribution fit in the organization. He connected his purpose with theirs.

We determine our proximity to the objective

 Too often in the military, we think that if we’re not the ones kicking in doors, maneuvering a tank, or firing artillery rounds, that our job doesn’t matter that much. But it does. The staff captain who works on a slide is freeing up the major to look ahead to the next problem. The administration clerk worries about processing pay and personnel actions so that the infantryman can focus on marksmanship. The mechanic, who works late hours fixing an engine, enables that the Stryker crew to focus on maneuver. It is all connected.

Our proximity to the objective is not determined by an organizational chart or distance from the action, it is determined by our mindset. We are the ones who choose to go to work each day with the mindset of either “I sweep the floors” or “I help put a man on the moon”.

Leaders accelerate or decelerate this mindset

While it is an individual choice to determine our proximity to the objective, leaders can either accelerate this train of thought or stand in the way of it. I have heard leaders treat their organizations as if it was made up of Soldiers with competing purposes and I have seen others foster the idea of everyone being essential to accomplishing a single purpose.

When I returned as a platoon leader from Iraq in 2008, I thought I was better than others because I spent my deployment on the streets, not behind a desk. It wasn’t until I heard a command sergeant major compare the unit to apple pie that I began to see things differently. He said that every member was like an ingredient. Even if you had the apples or the crust, you still didn’t have an apple pie until you had all the ingredients. We cannot fight and win our Nation’s wars without every member of the team adding their “piece of the pie”. He accelerated the idea that we all contribute to the mission. And that we should all approach our jobs that way.

Great leaders are like that Senior NCO, they make every member of their team feel like a part of the team, and that their work matters.

A culture of putting man on the moon

Imagine how much better our organizations would be, if everyone believed that their job contributed to the overall mission. Imagine how much happier we would be if at the end of the day we thought our contribution mattered. I believe it is an achievable goal, but it takes work. Leaders need to cultivate this culture and subordinates need to embrace it. As our military prepares itself to fight tonight, we all need to believe that we are ALL helping to fight and win our Nation’s wars.

10 thoughts on “The Janitor Who Helped Put a Man on the Moon”

  1. Joe, thanks for sharing. Would add that too often leaders inflate their importance, failing to remember that the leader accomplishes nothing, the workers accomplish everything. The job of the leader is to make the janitor, the door kicker, the tanker, the gal on the MLRS, the cyber code writer, etc as successful as possible. JKG

  2. Quite the article and very timely. We are amidst the Q12 process as our state leaders are intrigued by the level of engagement the full-time Soldiers have in the organization. The central idea of the engaged Soldier (employee) concept is knowing the impact of one’s actions in relation to the overall mission. The more Soldiers (employees) understand the ‘why’ of their efforts, the greater the ‘what’ of the mission will be accomplished. I even heard of one state where the Adjutant General had signs posted throughout the organization stating “Does what you are doing right now further our objectives and if not, then why are you doing it?” Sometimes I believe we as an Army have gotten lost in “running plays” when we should refocus on blocking and tackling. Getting the ‘why’ to Soldiers is a basic tenet of leadership. Thanks for the great article!

  3. Maxwell’s definition of high morale: What I do matters. I start each day asking the members of my squadron to tell me our mission statement and how what they do supports our mission. They get it and they would enjoy your writing.

  4. Good text. But, unfortunately, it is addressed to people who firmly know what honor is.
    Lt. B commanding platoon in the red zone – by definition is better than a clerk in HQ Lt. Doe 🙂 This is the army. If this does not happen, safe positions will become a refuge for opportunists … and people of honor will be left only the opportunity to die for their country.
    More or less like this.
    Sincerely, RostislavDDD.

  5. This also applies to civilians supporting the military. I had the opportunity to tour Anniston Army Depot where the Army overhauls tracked vehicles, strykers, and small arms. I saw a lot of great civilians proud of their contribution to our Soldiers. No matter where you are in the organization you can contribute and make a difference.
    Your attitude determines your altitude.

    • Thanks Michael Anderson I am one of those proud civilians (former Infantry & Quartermaster Officer) working as a DAC in a PM office delivering logistics software systems to our Soldiers. When I was a rifle platoon leader back in the distant Cold War I shared the authors views about my superiority. My focus changed when I became a company XO. I watched my maintenance section work 32 hours straight to pull and replace 7 M113 packs nonstop. Their dedication was only matched by the mess team and the supply folks. After that I embraced tactical logistics and always sought out those positions (Support Platoon Leader/S4) when not a Green Tabber.


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