It is not easy to be a good leader. It is a deeply human process, full of trial & error, victories & defeats, intuition & insight. This article is an illustration of the disasters that would result, if there is lack of co-ordination, and lack of leadership.
Someone has aptly commented on the art of leadership to be a smooth blend of intricate mathematics and eloquent poetry. One needs to ‘manage’ and co-ordinate his/her team, delegate work among them, and supervise the decision making to lead the team to success. For clarity on the essence of leadership, and to elucidate the disasters that result due to lack of co-ordination, and when one shuns from decision making, let us review a small snippet from the history of engineering and constructions from the 1970s. This is the story of a real-disaster that struck so suddenly at a bridge-construction site, in Melbourne, Australia, on a mid-day, killing many workers, site engineers and helpers.
‘After it was decided to construct a bridge of 3 kilometer length over the river near Melbourne, a construction conglomerate comprising five renowned firms and many eminent consultants were involved. A ‘box-girder’ model of bridge was finalized, for its many advantages like, ‘better stability, more rigid, elegant appearance, easy to maintain. They were also aware of the disadvantages like, the easy buckling and distortion during handling of the steel plates. On the basis of the report, plans and estimates were made. The entire project is split into three parts, foundation of bridge, concrete works and steel bridge structure erection.
‘The first two phases of the project reached completion without any delay or difficulty. However, erection of the steel bridge posed difficulties. Though the contractor for this job had enough experience and reputation, the work got hampered. To avoid further delays, this job was split into two sub-jobs, manufacture of steel parts & joining the steel parts.’
‘The contractors for the first two phases, having done a good job, came forward for the sub-contract of joining the steel plates! But they had no special expertise in this part of the job. Subsequently, the second part of the contract, making of the steel parts was also entrusted to this company as the other bidder backed out, for inordinate delays. The work was taken up very hurriedly. As time was short, planning was done in a clumsy way. They did not workout the details of the erection and construction. Most of the details were left out for the erectors & workers, to sort out on-hand. The calculations for safety of the bridge at different stages of construction and as a whole were not made properly, let alone checking them out later. The process adopted for assembling the bridge too was faulty.’
“Decisions were made intuitively, rather than scientifically!” And, it proved to be fatal.
‘Meanwhile, the project was also plagued by labor problems and loss of morale, due to imperfect coordination, lack of proper direction and control of work situation. Due to loss of morale, tempo of work slowed down. There was unrest among the labor, due to work transfer from one contractor to another, resulting in inter-union rivalry, and disputes. During this period of labor unrest, engineers could not concentrate their attention on vitally important technical matters. Their energies were drained out settling labor problems.
ON THE FATEFUL DAY: -
During the process of joining the steel plates and attaching the cables, a few plates buckled. To ease them out and straighten the troubled plates, about 30 bolts were removed. And it was an engineering blunder! Result—collapse of about 120-metre portion of the bridge, death of workers. Commission of enquiry was constituted to look into the causes. The site engineer recorded the collapse asunder: -
“The work of removing the bolts was done cautiously and with utmost attention to the effect on the structure of the bridge. As the 30 bolts were removed, the buckle reduced in height—but it extended in length. It appeared to settle. But, the linear extension continued. During the 50 minutes period between gentle settlement and catastrophic collapse, it was a phase of increasingly frenzied activity on the part of the men on the span. More men were called to restore the fault. Senior engineers rushed to the spot. All the bolts were restored to their places. But this did not prevent the collapse—and as a result of the collapse, fire broke out. Most of the equipment was damaged, and almost all the men involved were killed.”
The engineer-in-charge of the work, who actually removed the bolts, honestly believed that he was acting under his boss, the senior engineer’s instructions. However, it could not be ascertained what precise instructions were passed on.
It is rather paradoxical that only when a disaster occurs, detailed information about a complex project is available. On retrospection of this disaster, it is not just an engineering failure. It is also a managerial inefficiency, which lead to the collapse. Inadequate coordination, insufficient and sometimes lack of direction and control, inefficient methods of execution, inexperienced labor, failure of proper communication—these are some of the various causes for the disaster.
“Just one is enough to drown you in doom and gloom!” There were so many!
To conclude this piece of advice, it is important to note that a manager who lacks character and integrity, no matter how so ever knowledgeable and brilliant he is, he DESTROYS. It is not easy to be a good leader. It is a deeply human process, full of trial & error, victories & defeats, intuition & insight. May all the leaders be adept and efficient.