31st August 2011

 

My brother who designs bridges as a civil engineer has a saying: Engineers just can’t walk away from a bridge, with an analysis or a report. They have to see the problems through to an effective resolution – they couldn’t just submit the report. He says engineers should see every bridge as THEIR personal responsibility, irrespective of who designed it, or built it! The thing that keeps them from walking away is “passion and love for what you do”.  In Kaohsiung, the southern most major city of Taiwan, the engineers had picked up longitudinal cracks next to the abutments underneath the deck of one of their bridges. The bridge was 100 meters long and carried extremely heavy daily traffic. The problem was complex and they had not been able to resolve it. They flew him into the city. Twenty Taiwanese engineers looked at him from the ground and pointed up at the cracks and said, “why?” He had no idea what caused it. He asked to be lifted in a one-man lift into the deck box. When he got in, unbeknownst to them, he got immediately on his knees and asked God to help him. What came instantly into his mind was a paper he had written many years earlier in Africa on ‘temperature gradients in the transverse direction’. As he lifted his eyes he saw the answer immediately. He realized that the repairs they had carried out on the cracks were actually wrong, and had already seriously threatened the bridge.

I have learned something from his love of his work, and the passion with which he approaches it. He does not leave the basics to others. His passion takes him out of his office to the bridge itself. He involves himself intimately with every detail of what will make a bridge a success. Many stories of him going into impossible places and drilling into a wooden pile to obtain the samples he needed to prove that a bridge is about to collapse, is one of the things that has earned him respect in the engineering community. In a manner of speaking: He cares for the bridge more than he cares for the client. He obviously backs his practical exercises with sound mathematical calculations. He thinks beyond the bridge to the lives that use it every day. A few years back, in similar investigative fashion, he had two engineers lower him in a harness above a ravine below a foot bridge used every day by hundreds of children, to prove that it was about to collapse. The bridge was immediately condemned, and, we will never know, but potentially many lives were saved from disaster.

We have each been challenged at various times in our lives with the need to go beyond the call of duty!

Fundamental to this approach to life are certain elementary principles:

First, we need a correct perspective of ourselves! Integral to success, is the ability to recognize our own limits. As a leader I would much rather have people who are both zealous in their work and real about their shortcomings. Many today do not embrace this approach, thinking perhaps that they will lose their job if they are truthful about their abilities? However, the opposite is usually true: those who are honest about what they can or cannot do display the more worthy attitude of wisdom and accountability – they are the ones that end up growing and maturing into successful operatives, or alternatively, being redirected into directions where they can be more effective. No one, if they are a wise leader, wants to lose someone who is both passionate about their work and is honest!

Second, we need a correct perspective of others. It is not ‘judgmental’ to make assessments of how well or badly others are doing. Such judgments are integral to the success of any project. It requires a strong wisdom to assess progress; in fact all positive progress depends on it. Assessments enable the right people to do the right things; they enable taking care of what is overlooked in good time. Good leaders will create an environment in their teams that encourage mature assessments that do not disparage people. It is important for a team to work together, but if they do not take stock of their situations regularly, they will create an unhealthy; difficult, and ineffective environment. No one likes to be told that he has not done so well. It takes a commitment to the perspectives of others to engage in this process. Those companies, and entities that do, always benefit, by contrast, those that don’t, usually lose pace with proper progress. The junkyard of corporate companies is filled with former titans who refused to listen to their own employees, such as Kodak. They fostered, as do others today, an environment of internecine warfare, instead of co-operative and open discussion!

Third, we need a perspective that goes beyond the task. We might ask: how does one acquire that sense of responsibility? Responsibility is linked to love. The love of what we do, grows symbiotically with the desire to see it work. In this way, passion and process walk hand in hand, as does desire and discipline. Wise leaders can begin to develop this attitude in their teams early on in a person’s career, perhaps by showing how it is done’ by communicating and teaching, and by showing that success can be achieved without undue sacrifice to the important co-existing values of family; honor; fair pay; respect, discipline and affirmation.

Fourth, we need a correct perspective of obstacles. People who are unable to see the problem will not see through the problem, but it takes greater wisdom not to stop at the problem, but to grasp the solution. People can be trained to see it, and to see past it. A friend who raced motorcycles once explained this approach to me. He said, that if a bale of hay were to be thrown in the path of his racing motorcycle two things should occur almost simultaneously, first, seeing the bale, and second, looking past it – the racer who will miss that bale most times is the one who looks past it at where he wants his bike to go.

Fifth, we need a correct perspective of God. No situation is ever complete until it has been placed before God in our hearts with an expectation of his help. God always has a plan, and will communicate to us the correct approach. His wisdom is the highest wisdom, and is thus well worth waiting for. Those who find this path, find a peace within that is unshakeable. People who turn their faces upward easily make up whatever shortfall they, or their team may have. Even wild and stormy situations are stilled as easily as Jesus stilled the raging sea to the amazement of his disciples. God is in control of nature; of people; of their situations, and of their futures!

Whether it is physical, or spiritual bridges we build, let us decide what kind of bridge we will build, and whether we will build it in such a way that it can stand up to the weather that is coming! Infectious passion, and hard work, will gather around us people of like-mind – a bunch of passionate bridge builders!

Keep on. Loys