The 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge will occur on May 27, 2012. This memorable event affords a great opportunity to consider valuable leadership principles that were employed to build one of the world’s most recognized structures.
After first seeing the Golden Gate Bridge on a family vacation in the early 1970s, I became fascinated with this iconic bridge. What intrigues me most is the leadership behind such a massive project. The skills required to successfully complete a task that many deemed “impossible” causes this engineering marvel to communicate volumes about strategic leaders. This may explain why two large pictures of the bridge’s construction process hang in my office at work and my study at home. They are constant reminders of the dynamics needed to guide an organization.
The first insight is probably the most obvious: Great works require great dreams. In 1917, The Southern Pacific Railroad had a nice monopoly on the ferry system that shuttled back and forth across the Golden Gate. It had served the area well until the population of San Francisco started to rapidly expand. The Panama Canal opened in 1915 and it brought new prosperity to the Bay Area. Lines at the ferries lengthened dramatically and the outdated system was no longer adequate.
Joseph Strauss was contacted by the city engineer of San Francisco during 1917 to offer a proposal for spanning the Golden Gate. The Chicago-based engineer was only 5’ 3” but his small stature never limited his grandiose ambition. Nothing of this magnitude had ever before been considered, much less achieved. The narrowest point along the channel was 5,357 feet. This would require a main span of some 4,200 feet over water that was 300-feet deep. That alone demanded the invention of new methods for construction. Weather and sea conditions seemed to prohibit the possibility of building a bridge that could withstand the elements, and the same concerns applied to the manpower required to construct it. Naysayers were aplenty, as they are with any dream, but Strauss proceeded nonetheless and presented his first proposal in 1921. Seventy-five years after its completion we’re celebrating the reality of a great dream that brought about the most ambitious suspension bridge ever built.
The second insight is nearly as obvious as the first: Conflict is inevitable. After the excitement of a great adventure cooled, critics began to surface. Charles Derleth was the chairman of Berkeley’s Engineering Department and he didn’t approve of Strauss’ plan. He wasn’t alone. The Army and Navy protested on the grounds that enemy forces could bomb the bridge and shut down the harbor. Some objected to the cost, which was ambiguous and sure to rise. When the Great Depression hit, money became an even greater obstacle to overcome. In addition, an entire organization was created to stop the bridge. The Citizens’ Committee Against the Golden Gate Bridge utilized newspapers, the radio, and door-to-door canvassing for their negative campaign. They argued that the bridge would be impossible to build, would be an earthquake hazard, was cost prohibitive, could not be financially sustained, posed a threat to the harbor, and would destroy the area’s natural beauty. Any great leader knows he or she will face inevitable conflict – and sometimes a whole organization will be established just to oppose them. Conflict is inevitable so always be prepared to successfully and positively lead in the midst of its presence.
The Golden Gate Bridge is suspended by two main cables, each of which contains 40,000 miles of wire. The individual wires have the diameter of a Number 2 pencil and are bundled together to form the giant cables that are 3’ in diameter. That alone is a picture of teamwork, but how Joseph Strauss assembled his team of experts is the real artistry of teamwork and the third insight on leadership.
In 1926, the Joint Council of Engineering Societies of San Francisco called for new engineering studies. This communicated that Strauss’ original proposal had flaws. That led to a backlash against him and within three years others were vying for the opportunity to be chief engineer. Among those seeking this position were Leon Moisseiff, who designed the Ben Franklin Bridge, and O.H. Ammann, who engineered the George Washington Bridge. In 1929, Strauss ultimately became the point man for the largest bridge project in human history and he placed these former opponents on his team. He also included Charles Derleth, the engineer noted above who disapproved of his plan. All total, Strauss brought on dozens of people that compensated for his weaknesses and gave balance to the team. Their previous rivalry did not blind him to the necessity of their input. In addition, John Eberson was hired to help with the design. Eberson had never before worked on any bridge, but Strauss was confident that he could add “romance and drama to the design.” Teamwork is far more than assembling a group of people. In its richest form, teamwork is the artistry of uniting those who might not otherwise work together and incorporating their skills to reach a common, higher goal. The Golden Gate Bridge is a tangible demonstration of this principle’s power.
One of the most unique leadership insights provided by the Golden Gate Bridge is that ofreevaluation. Joseph Strauss had never built a suspension bridge, but he believed in the design he first proposed in 1921. He spent eight years promoting his idea and exerted enormous energy to overcome the obstacles that were put up against it. After the 1927 engineering report cited multiple concerns about the design, stability, weight, and feasibility, Strauss was not deterred. He reevaluated the numerous factors coming in to play and ultimately abandoned his own idea to become the champion for a design that was actually proposed by one of his rivals, Moisseiff. Some believe it to be a weakness when a leader changes his mind, but sometimes that is the wisest action a leader can take. Pride frequently prevents the best decisions, but truly courageous leaders reserve the prerogative to rethink their position and make necessary adjustments.
Great leaders know the power of people skills and Joseph Strauss depended on this leadership principle more than any other. He was known to be rude, arrogant, and overly ambitious, but his ability to persuasively communicate trumped his negative traits. Although he was officially the chief engineer, Joseph Strauss was in reality the chief cheerleader and communicator for the entire construction process. He never earned an engineering degree but his public relations skills were so strong that he was given charge to build the bridge. The day-to-day operations of design and construction were handled by the more competent Charles Ellis, who was a vice-president in Strauss’ Chicago firm. He assumed the responsibilities of building the bridge while Strauss used his great communication skills to promote the project and serve as its spokesman. The technical skills of engineering and construction belonged to those whose names are not often remembered during casual discussions about the bridge, but Joseph Strauss is known as the builder because he possessed the skills to communicate a dream and rally it into reality.
The Golden Gate Bridge is seen as a work of beauty and that’s an important truth. The continuous tension between form and function insinuates that you can only have one or the other. The final result that majestically spans the Bay is a vivid reminder that the two can coexist. Joseph Strauss was not known for beautiful work. In fact, that was one of the outcries about his initial proposal – it was ugly. A picture of his bulky, unattractive but functional style can be seen in the counter balance lift bridge he designed for 3rd Street in San Francisco.
Realizing his own deficiencies in the area of aesthetics, Strauss implemented a previously unknown working arrangement. He hired two architects to work alongside engineers. This new development crossed a clearly delineated line where engineers were accustomed to designing all elements of a bridge. In a letter to Irving Morrow, one of the architects, Strauss wrote, “Make it beautiful.” This strategy created a work of art that gave beauty to the bridge’s function of traversing the seemingly impassable chasm. When a leader is tempted to believe he or she has but one option when it comes to form or function, the “giant harp” in San Francisco affirms that creative leadership can broker both.
Almost every leader longs for a completed task that will not demand additional attention, but even cemeteries require “perpetual care.” When the Golden Gate Bridge opened to traffic on May 28, 1937, most people thought the job was finished. Strauss even composed a seven-verse poem for opening day titled, “The Mighty Task Is Done.” But the painting that began three years before the span was complete is still going on seventy-five years later. Three-dozen painters make up a crew that continuously repaint the bridge. Salt air and fog require that it be completely repainted every four years. These painters are assisted by seventeen steel riggers who remove plates and bars so nothing escapes the protective coats of paint. This perpetual care represents the most costly maintenance item in the Bridge District’s budget. Few would believe paint could be that important but the bridge would not have survived without this attention for a task that appeared to be complete before many of us were born. Progress certainly includes reaching out for new challenges, but it also entails maintaining what you already have.
Dozens of other insights could be gained from a historical review of the Golden Gate Bridge, but one final thought will suffice for now: People are a leader’s greatest challenge. The obstacle of stretching a bridge across insurmountable odds was tough, but providing for the men who did was even more difficult. Strauss and his legion of leaders had to protect the workers from multiple elements. Tinted goggles were required to prevent snowblindness from the sun’s reflection off the water. Special diets were necessary to counteract dizziness for high-steel workers. The gas created by burning rivets caused a variety of confusing medical conditions that had to be addressed. An enormous trapeze net was placed under the bridge to overcome the real danger of falling, and the psychological fear of the superstitious bridge workers who believed one man would die for every million dollars spent on the bridge, which was budgeted at $35 million. In May of 1987, on the 50thanniversary, the crush of people posed the most significant danger thus far to the bridge’s stability. The bridge was shut down to vehicular traffic so pedestrians could mingle on the span. More than 250,000 people crowded onto the roadway with over 500,000 packing onto the approaches. The bridge flattened out for the first time in history under the dense load of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. When the arch disappeared in the middle, nervous engineers quickly worked calculations to make sure it could support the weight. Gary Giacomini, president of the Bridge District Board at the time, said, “The bridge had the greatest load factor in its 50-year life.” Over 2 billion vehicles have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, but the gathering of people for a one-day event posed the greatest challenge. Whether it’s people on a bridge or people in your office, they are (we are) the greatest challenge a leader encounters.
Leadership is energizing and exhausting at the same time, and it can certainly take a toll on the man or woman who steps out in front of the pack to offer direction. Joseph Strauss died on May 18, 1938, just a year shy of the bridge’s first anniversary. Certainly not every leader dies soon after succeeding in a great endeavor, but leaders understand the brevity of life and the price you pay for leading. As the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge approaches and then passes, take time to consider some of the great insights it offers and allow those thoughts to take you to a new level of leadership.