Leadership for Dreamers: Three Simple Principles to Drive Change

March 17, 2014

This post was contributed by Michael J. MacPhee, Ph.D., Water Division President for ARCADIS U.S.

“We have to dream about the possibilities of a far, far different and better future — and big dreams at that!”

– Dr. Paul Busch, 1998 Simon Freese Award Lecture to ASCE

Can you imagine how big the dreams of leaders were to spur the necessary innovation and make such incredible progress to get us where we are today?

With a tremendous amount of work ahead to transform our infrastructure, we must challenge our imagination and think more broadly than ever. We can serve the profession and the world more effectively tomorrow by building on the experiences of the past, including looking to our forebears for leadership traits that we all share, and may wish to strengthen.

There are three simple principles that are hallmarks of successful leaders who drive change:
1. Think Big
2. Take the Long View
3. Focus on People

Since the economic downturn, we have had little time to daydream about a much greater tomorrow, and what could be if we stretch and reach well beyond the myriad needs of today. Domestically, it is a much different market now than it was in 2008 — infrastructure programs are larger, but fewer in number; there is an expectation that we will bring the best global ideas to create local solutions; project delivery methods have changed; there has been a shift in spending priorities from to CapEx to OpEx; and the market continues to consolidate. Finance is now a core capability that we must possess in order to resolve tough problems. Delivering work with superior technical quality will always be fundamental, but creating the projects and then bringing the total solution is required.

Our clients need bold solutions to big problems, and they need our help. The game has changed and we need to reinvent ourselves so we can provide the necessary results. We have to take the time to contemplate what is possible, and then find practical ways to make it happen. The challenge for us as leaders is to think big and be bold; because if not us, then who?


You are all leaders. You have to make decisions to solve problems all the time — it’s just part of our jobs. However, truly influential leaders aim high and take the long view. They make better decisions by becoming much more aware of the consequences of getting too focused on what lies just ahead. They chart a course based on a vision (a dream, if you will) and then build a strategy and tactics around it.

We own the responsibility to sustain our world and society in a balanced way with the health, safety and wellbeing of our people and stakeholders central to all we do. We are stewards and it is incumbent upon us to understand the social, economic, and environmental consequences of what we do. Our solutions must have the capacity to endure and improve quality of life for generations to come.
We must ask ourselves whether we could see further. This is the time to raise our heads and work with our clients to tackle the big problems that demand innovative, sustainable solutions.


Crucial to success is surrounding ourselves with exceptional people and providing them with mentorship and real opportunities to grow. This requires genuine effort and dedication and is built on leadership values of high moral character and integrity. People are attracted to and loyal to people, not companies or institutions. They look at how we treat colleagues and partners to be sure that our decisions are fair and defensible. They seek to understand our humanity as well as our business acumen. We must not only be good corporate citizens, but also support charitable causes and offer our time and talent to benefit the world. Honesty and reliability are the “price of entry” for leaders. After that, it is fundamentally about inspiration and doing what you said you would do.

Beyond aligning with these core values of leaders, our staff want to feel that they are part of something bigger and that their careers are woven into where the organization is heading. They desire to follow vision and leaders who have a plan that is simple and clear. They want their professional development to be a top priority for us, and to know that we are strong advocates for them. Our people get opportunities to grow when our organizations grow, which places a heavy burden on us to be agile and change.

Dream of a Brighter, Stronger, Even Better Future

I ask that you revisit these tenets of great leaders often, and to renew your pledge and commitment to the profession and to the world. Generations to come will depend on the change that we make, and the direction that we set on the most significant challenges before us.

Where do you see these leadership traits at work? Where are big dreams becoming reality?

ASCE-2013Michael J. MacPhee, Ph.D., is Water Division President for ARCADIS U.S. He has 20 years of experience providing a broad range of water consulting services to municipal, federal, and industrial clients across the U.S. and abroad. MacPhee holds doctoral and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the Technical University of Nova Scotia, and is Board Certified by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers. He is a member of the American Water Works Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Water Environment Association. MacPhee was the recipient of the 2013 John I. Parcel-Leif J. Sverdrup Civil Engineering Management Award from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

  • Good advice and well written. Focusing on people is, I my opinion, the most important. The word civil has two meanings – pertaining to people and respectful. We, as civil engineers, should remember both meanings and live our lives around both meanings.

  • I particularly like the idea of “Taking the Long View”. As engineers we are detail oriented. As project-oriented people, we have a tendency to focus on tomorrow, not next week or next decade. But it is important that we occasionally “raise our heads and . . . tackle the big problems”, as Mr. MacPhee states. I have had many opportunities to speak to groups of engineers about the future, and how we might change the future. Many engineers catch the vision. But too often they focus on what they learned yesterday, what they are doing today, how they are doing it, and make judgements about the future based only on that reality. Again, as Mr. MacPhee states, “we must challenge our imagination and think more broadly than ever.” If we don’t create the future, others will create it for us.

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