Leadership as Bridge Building
Having grown up in St. Louis, Missouri, I have a great affinity for the Mississippi River and an iconic architectural marvel- the Eads Bridge. The story behind that bridge is a truly monumental and inspirational one.
After the Civil War, the US was nearly destitute. The more populous areas of the country, in the East, had been devastated by the war. The memories of the number of death and the gruesomeness of brother vs. brother in that conflict caused citizens to seek a new start- a new horizon. The phrase ‘Go west, young man,” rang in the hearts of many pilgrims that began the journey westward seeking hope and a future.
Wagons loaded with all their worldly goods with stock and children following closely struggled westward through Ohio, then Indiana, then Illinois. Suddenly the trek was confronted with an insurmountable obstacle- the mighty Mississippi River. At St. Louis, the gateway to the West, the river is at least 1500 feet wide. For these wayfarers, confronting the river just increased their hardship and despondency.
Thriving businesses had grown up, providing solutions to the dilemma. There were ferries that charged exorbitant fees to cross with all their worldly goods. Or these people seeking the prospects of homesteading the West could sell their wagons and stock on the east side and purchase new stock (at a premium price) as they arrived on the western bank. In a cash poor country, this was a terrible dilemma.
The other option was to drive hundreds of miles to the north and cross the river where there were adequate bridges. This was preferred by merchants in Chicago, which was competing with St. Louis to be the dominant city in the Midwest at the time. Chicago already had the major east-west railroad at the time but it was far to the north of the route that most travelers would want to take.
Congress attempted to solve the problem by commissioning a company to build a bridge at St. Louis. The city of Chicago bought this company out and scrapped any plans for a bridge. Congress acted again and Andrew Carnegie became involved in the new company, Keystone Bridge Company.
The city of Chicago was not the only opponent of the bridge to be built in St. Louis. The ferry boat owners would lose their businesses if the bridge were built. Barge traffic up and down the river would be adversely affected if the common type of bridge of concrete and iron was built, obstructing the shipping lanes on the river. The merchants in St. Louis who were making huge profits from the travelers would also suffer. All of these groups were vehemently against the bridge. Congress, on the other hand, wanted as many people as possible to populate the territory separating the eastern states from California.
To solve the construction problems of this massive undertaking, a self-taught engineer, James Eads, was hired. Eads had gained some notoriety during the War by producing ironclads and inventing a diving bell to salvage goods from the bottom of the river. However, he had never built a bridge. Eads’ plan for the bridge was rejected by engineers as being untested and too difficult. Eads replied, “Must we admit that, because a thing had never been done, it can never be, when our knowledge and judgment assures us it is entirely practical?”
This daunting task, opposed by many people and by a mighty unruly river, was ultimately to be a great victory for James Eads but it would require creativity that he had never harnessed. The caissons supporting the bridge were sunk into 100 feet of below the level of the Mississippi deep into the mud, created by pumping air into the column so workmen could work below the water level to clear the bedrock for a firm foundation. Eads invented a sand pump to empty the cylinder. Then concrete was pumped into the caisson. As it filled up the workmen rose to the top. If they came up too fast they would get ‘the bends’, or decompression sickness. Eads took precautions but 15 men died from this malady.
The material for the bridge and its unique cantilever design made the bridge controversial and challenging. The material was steel- the alloy of iron and carbon. Carnegie provided the steel and Eads had a vision of using this new material to build a new kind of bridge that would allow river traffic to pass under while train, pedestrians and other vehicles crossed the mile wide river above. The cantilevered steel construction would also allow for parts to be replaced without shutting down the bridge. This was the first steel arch bridge and the largest bridge of its time.
Nearing the end of the construction, a tornado hit the bridge causing $50,000 damage and delaying its opening. Though he had to leave the site temporarily due to nervous exhaustion, Eads never lost faith in the vision and the bridge as dedicated but William T. Sherman on July 4, 1874 with a 100 gun salute and 14 locomotives parked on it to demonstrate its strength. It was required to support 3000 lbs./lineal foot. Eads designed it to support 5000. He built it to look stronger than necessary because public perception was crucial.
Eads encountered many obstacles from people, conditions and the river. Many people doubted his vision and the bridge took many years to complete. His creative genius produced several inventions that revolutionized construction in general and started an explosive revolution in bridge-building. That bridge still carries vehicular traffic and now the St. Louis Metro light rail has replaced the railroad but 140 years later, this 19th century engineering marvel- that was too difficult to build- lives on.
Leadership communication is similar to the task that Eads faced.
The obstacles can appear insurmountable.
Others may have already given up on the task.
Tried and true methods may not be enough.
Negative voices must be ignored.
Solutions may need to be invented.
The vision of the solution must never be abandoned.
The most effective bridge builder may be the one who is least expected.
When the distance between you and staff seems insurmountable, BUILD A BRIDGE!
When the task seems overwhelming, BULD A BRIDGE!
When you aren’t getting what you wanted from your people, BUILD A BRIDGE!
When your plans are destroyed, BUILD A BRIDGE!
When you have a new assignment, BUILD A BRIDGE!
When you are disheartened, BUILD A BRIDGE!
EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP IS CONSTANT BRIDGE BUILDING!