“With the darkness came noises so weird and uncanny as to make the flesh creep with the strangeness of it all. The very worst was the wailing for the dead that came from the Labour Camp below us. When one of their number died, the friends and kindred of the deceased would drink rum and wail and sing old English Gospel hymns. No matter how fast asleep I might be, when the first sound of that eerie screeching slapped the air, I was wide awake and out of bed. It was like the damns of the witches” wrote Rose van Hardeweld, wife of one of the first US engineers, Jan van Hardeveld, at the Panama Canal project, of life at the Panama Canal Project. She paints a pretty picture.
This project was probably President Roosevelt’s greatest challenge of his Presidency. To build a canal just over 80 km in length, through some of the most treacherous terrain on earth – crazy thick jungles full of snakes and mosquitoes that carried Yellow Fever, the Chagras River – one of the most volatile rivers in the world, seemingly bottomless swamps, sheer mountain ranges and never ending torrents of rain falling from the sky. Then he had the “minor” problem of negotiating access to the land of Panama to build it. That “only” took a number of political maneuvers and deals and supporting the People of Panama’s fight for independence from Columbia and a hefty fee.
Most people believed the Canal couldn’t be built.
The French had tried 10 years before, with one of the greatest engineers of the time, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who’d built the Suez Canal. They failed. The French squandered US$287 million and 20,000 lives were lost, mainly to Yellow Fever. However, Roosevelt saw it as a massive opportunity for America to cement its position as the most powerful nation on Earth, and pressed forward to lead a team to achieve what others couldn’t.
The project suffered many challenges as the years progressed – 2 Project Heads resigning (Wallace in 1905 and Stevens in 1907), a Yellow Fever epidemic (which wiped out the French effort), strikes, flooding, landslides, constant rain, heat, bad press coverage, corruption, the sheer magnitude of the task with it’s many dangers, poor living conditions, 100% turnover of “White” employees until living conditions were improved. The list is exhausting. A massive leadership challenge let alone a pure human endeavour against nature.
Roosevelt never lost faith in his people. He broke US Presidential tradition and left the US, travelling to the Canal to see it for himself and to raise the morale. He gave countless impromptu speeches everywhere he went during his time there. It was the turning point for the Canal.
On August 15, 1915 – 10 years after the first shovel struck the earth, over $US350 million spent and 5,000 lives lost, the Panama Canal was officially open. An incredible Leadership feat – Leadership in sheer persistence and commitment through seemingly insurmountable odds, Leadership in human endeavour, Leadership in building belief and allowing your people to soar. President Roosevelt and George Goethals, the final Project Head (1907 – 1915), led by example to see the Project to fruition.
Anything worthwhile takes longer than you think, demands a higher price, encounters stronger opposition than what you originally thought. I doubt the teams of people working on the Canal could ever have dreamt up what they encountered! But on the flip side, I doubt they could have imagined before the start of the Project what they’d come up with to achieve their Vision!
Leading by example is what you must do to keep growing, winning and moving, on leading for growth to reach your potential. Your team will observe your commitment to your Vision and will duplicate whatever your level of commitment is to do whatever it takes to achieve it. President Roosevelt and Goethal clearly led by example, never wavering from their task. Themselves and their people pushed themselves beyond all limits.
Total commitment requires a decision by the Leader to truly lead by example by making a “True Decision”.
There will always be pressure when a leader commits to their Vision. Effective leaders have the mental toughness to think positively, seeking out the pressure of the moment and are energised by it.
Have you made a True Decision?
What is the pressure moment you are dealing with right now?
Does your team see you will do whatever it takes?
Leading by example requires you as the leader to constantly focus on growing the potential of the people you have around you, instead of focusing on the limitations that exist within the team you lead.
The potential for greatness lies within each individual and the greatest test of a leader’s ability is to bring about a positive change in others and this is the greatest example of leading by example – making a difference in the lives of other people.
Are you making a difference?
Are the people around you growing in their potential, achieving things they never thought possible?
What do you need to do to bring about positive change in the team you are part of or the team you lead?
Leaders who effectively lead by example are fully aware that they are constantly being watched by the team they lead, and ensure they act accordingly. Authentic leaders don’t just put on an outstanding Leadership display in front of others in public – displaying courage, loyalty, honesty, a “no quit attitude”, constantly serving their team for example, no, authentic and highly effective leaders adopt the true Leadership behaviours as part of them, it’s who they are. They are the real deal. People can sniff out a phoney from a mile away and run the other direction. The Panama Canal was built by Real Deal Leadership.
Are you the Real Deal?
What is your “Panama Canal”?
Are you leading by example?
(If you’re not familiar with the building of the Panama Canal, it’s well worth the effort to check it out – an awe inspiring story of true Leadership and pure human endeavour against all odds. Check out this doco: https://youtu.be/d-CaBIKTl4M )
Thank you for taking the time to read my article.
I trust my articles can play a part in helping you build your Leadership strength to live a better life!
I talk further about leading by example in my book, “The Dream Is Everything”.
If you’d like to receive a FREE e-copy, (RRP $24.95), click here.
Some other articles I’ve written on this topic (or similar ones) are: