“If You Have a Tough Mission, Pick the Right Leaders”

October 27, 2014
ASCE-2014 Global meeting, Panama

“People don’t remember it, but if you look back at our involvement in the Panama Canal, it began with our involvement in the Spanish-American War in 1898,” says Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick. Photo Credit: David Hathcox

At ASCE’s Global Engineering Conference 2014 in Panama City, Panama, Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, P.E., M.ASCE, the 53rd chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was the special guest at the Industry Leaders Forum, moderated by Anthony S. Bartolomeo, P.E., F.ASCE, president and CEO of Pennoni Associates and chair of the ASCE Industry Leaders Council.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Bostick relayed how the Army Corps of Engineers first got involved in the design and construction of the original Panama Canal project and why the U.S. effort succeeded. Bostick and Bartolomeo also discussed leadership, lessons learned from the French’s attempt to build the Panama Canal, the importance of presenting decisions and actions to our political leaders, resilience, asset management, and how military necessities become the impetus for driving change.

“People don’t remember it, but if you look back at our involvement in [the] Panama Canal, it began with our involvement in the Spanish-American War in 1898,” says Bostick. “There was a battle brewing with the Spanish fleet off the coast of Florida and president [William McKinley] ordered one of our modern naval ships that happened to be [stationed] in San Francisco to get over to Florida right away.

“But ‘right away’ turned into 13,000 miles and 67 days because the ship had to sail around South America’s Cape Horn. The president realized that a canal built through Panama would reduce the sailing time by 8,000 miles and several weeks. So, whether we are talking about GPS systems, UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles], or robotics, the military drives a lot of the change that takes place.”

 A Lot of This Comes Down to Leadership

ASCE-2014 Global meeting, Panama

“I have always had a view that if you have a tough mission, pick the right leaders with the right knowledge and attributes and throw them into the fight,” says Bostick. Photo Credit: David Hathcox

Bostick told Bartolomeo that the U.S. and the Army Corps of Engineers had been interested in building a canal in Panama as far back 1803, and again in 1855, when they helped construct the first railroad in the country. But it was the French, after the successful construction of the Suez Canal, who decided to build the canal.

“As we know today, the French had a difficult time,” notes Bostick. “They wanted to build a sea-level canal and part of the concern was the Chagres River, which during the rainy season would cause flooding and be very wild, difficult to control.

“It turned out to be a lot more digging than the French had planned. The $130 million project [was estimated to] cost twice that and they were about a third of the way complete so they stopped operations. They lost 16,500 lives and a lot of that was due to health, safety, and other things. When the U.S. decided to come in and participate in this enormous effort, we applied lessons learned.”

After deciding that Panama and not Nicaragua was still the best route for constructing the canal, Bostick says that President Theodore Roosevelt created a Board of Consulting Engineers, made up of mostly civilian civil engineers, to recommend whether they should still try to construct a sea-level, lockless canal or else go with a lock chamber canal.

“A lot of this comes down to leadership,” stressed Bostick, on why the U.S. succeeded where the French failed. “I have always had a view that if you have a tough mission, pick the right leaders with the right knowledge and attributes and throw them into the fight. And with great leadership they will find the right solution. What [George Washington] Goethals did was surround himself with other great leaders.”

ASCE-2014 Global meeting, Panama

Bostick told Bartolomeo that the U.S. succeeded where the French failed with the construction of the Panama Canal becuase of leadership. Photo Credit: David Hathcox

Bostick says that among the leaders that Goethals, supervisor of the construction of the Panama Canal, assembled were Gen. Henry Larcom Abbot, who helped to persuade Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft to adopt a plan for a lock canal; Brig. Gen. H. F. Hodges, who designed the lock chambers and the gates; Lt. Col. William Sibert, who designed the Atlantic side; Sydney B. Williamson, who designed the Pacific side; and Lt. Col. David DuBose Gaillard, who was placed in charge of construction of the central portion of the Panama Canal, that crossing the continental divide. Another key member of the team was Col. William C. Gorgas, who helped tame Yellow Fever.

Bostick says, “Goethals was the kind of leader [who could] bring very determined, very successful people – military and civilian, peers, subordinates, and supervisors – together into one team, which is what it takes to be successful.”

Looking around the room, he added, “One day you young people will be in a position where you can make decisions like that; where you can influence change and you are at the top.”

 Applying Lessons Learned Today

ASCE-2014 Global meeting, Panama

“The human side of this job is understanding people,” says Bostick. Photo Credit: David Hathcox

Bartolomeo asked Bostick what lessons were learned from the successful construction of the Panama Canal.

“The human side of this job is understanding people, and that was another thing that Goethals was very good at,” Bostick said. “He understood that he had to touch the hearts and minds of his people and so every Sunday he set aside time where he would open his doors and talk to the workers; whether it was pay or healthcare or safety, he addressed those.”

Connecting that to USACE projects today, Bostick added, “If you look at the hurricane storm damage risk reduction system that we have developed post-Katrina, it is a system of locks, dams, levees, and pumps that is tied together. And when you look at that and think about our asset management challenge, you get a good idea of the future risks in our country and a lot of it comes down to resources.”

Picking up on that theme, Bostick noted, “When we have as much work as the Corps does and so little money to focus on it, you kind of spread it like peanut butter as far as you can and you just don’t have enough money to finish projects. When Katrina hit, we lost a lot of lives and suffered a lot of damage and the country had to invest $130 billion into that effort. The Corps was given $14.5 billion [of that money] and in six years we built the system that is there now; it withstood Hurricane Isaac and did a tremendous job.

“So the moral of the story is, If you can figure out how to convince our decision makers to take action and invest $14.5 billion in predisaster dollars, we would have saved $116.5 billion. That is the challenge for all of us today.”

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