Thursday, August 23, 2012

Not Only Genius: Lessons from the Panama Canal

There's a reason why people buy David McCullough's books in bunches. Like all the best historians, he knows how to adjust the perspective of his work to move back and forth between the big, grand, abstract events that interest us and the mundane but tangible details that give those events meaning we can actually wrap our heads around. He also finds a nice balance between data and personality; the dates, numbers, documents, and figures, that are the substance of history and the characters that are the story of history.

A couple of weeks ago I had a hankering for a particular kind of book. Since my day job is satisfying such hankerings, it's pretty rare for me to struggle with one for any length of time. Usually I know what I want to read and have a stack of galleys that fit it. (New bookseller term “galleylag: reading the galley of a book after it's come out in paperback. Use it in a sentence today.) For reasons lost in the mysteries of consciousness, I wanted to read a big dense book of history that wasn't about war. You may or may not be surprised at how few books that really is. (Another book that would have worked, if I hadn't already read it would have been A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman). This hankering hung over me for a few days and its solution was met with an inordinate amount of relief. I would read Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 by David McCullough. Here's what I learned.

Just look at a world map. How could you not look at that tiny little sliver of land connecting the Americas and not imagine making just a little cut and joining the Atlantic and Pacific? Riding high off the completion of the Suez Canal Ferdinand de Lesseps did just that. De Lesspes might not have been the single most important person to the completion of Suez, but it certainly wouldn't have happened without him. De Lesseps wasn't an engineer or an architect. He was a diplomat, but his diplomatic skills played a very small part in the completion of the Suez Canal.

His genius was in promotion. De Lesseps, more than anyone else, convinced people, the French government, the French people, the Egyptian royalty that a canal could be built and would be built. He merely needed to show up at a stock holder's meeting or something and somehow everyone left believing not just that a sea level canal across the African isthmus was possible, but that it was only a matter of time. Money poured in. Morale stayed high. Personal conflicts were smoothed over in service to the greater goal. De Lesseps was able to convince everyone involved in the project that they were doing the great work of human progress, that nothing more important was happening anywhere on Earth, and that completion of the Suez Canal was a foregone conclusion.

In short, he was a genius at making people believe in him, and this skill is absolutely vital in accomplishing tasks believed impossible. But there are tasks that are actually impossible. And when faced with such tasks, genius like that of de Lesseps leads to utter disaster. Which is what happened when the French tried to build a seal-level canal in Panama.

If there were someone else leading the effort, really anyone besides de Lesseps, it is very likely that a lock canal would have been built in Nicaragua. But because de Lesseps believed in the sea level canal at Panama and because de Lesseps could convince everyone to believe in him, and through him, in the idea he represented, the French attempted an impossible canal, millions of French citizens lost billions of dollars, careers were destroyed, reputations tarnished, corruption flourished, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, the emblem of modern humanity, the hero of the French people, died in disgrace. For the important tasks in humanity, genius is not enough; it has to be the right kind of genius for the right kind of task. Otherwise at best some mediocre result is reached and at worst thousands of people die of malaria and yellow fever with nothing to show for their sacrifice.

If there is one major difference between the French and American efforts to build the Panama canal is that the Americans had enough foresight or luck, to have the right kind of genius working on the problem at the right time. The first was John Stevens, the chief engineer from 1905-1907. Stevens was the first executive to realize that the primary challenge of Panama was not engineering but infrastructure. In order to dig a canal, you needed to move the dirt out of the way and keep enough workers healthy to do the digging. So he authorized one of the greatest health and sanitation efforts maybe the world has ever seen and turned his vast experience in building railroads, to building, well, railroads for dirt and debris. He solved problems of transportation, efficiency, and disease. Everything else that happened after his tenure rested on the structures he created. Work, any kind of work, could happen because of his systems.

The next and final chief engineer was a military man named George Washington Goethals. He did two things that allowed the completion of the Panama Canal; the first was that he followed the path set by Stevens and continued to manage the digging systems as much as the digging itself, adding in a level of military efficiency and commitment, and second, and most important, he understood that a task of this scale needed an entire society to complete it. Among other things a canal newspaper was founded under his watch and he set aside several hours every Sunday to hear and redress the grievances of anybody involved in the canal. He incentivized marriage. A director of women's clubs was hired. Essentially, he created a community whose identity was based in the completion of the canal and so each and every employee (or at least all the white American employees) was personally and completely invested in the project. And so when tragedy did strike, whether it was a landslide that undid months of effort or an accidental explosion that killed dozens of men, moral was unshaken. No matter what the condition, everyone got up for work the next day and gave it their all.

But who knows what would have happened if Americans had employed another de Lesseps. (In a way, we did, in Theodore Roosevelt, but he wasn't in charge of the actual building, so much as he was the force that ensured building would happen.) The work could have continued for decades and still ended in failure. Of course, John Stevens had been in charge at Suez, there probably would have been a railroad instead of a canal. Genius has its limitations and the wrong genius can sometimes be more disastrous than incompetence. Which leads to a strange, almost paradoxical conclusion. Perhaps the most vital genius in any great project, is the genius of knowing which genius to put in charge of what aspect at what time.

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