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Emulating the Great Leadership of Colonel Goethals, Builder of the Panama Canal

Posted on Thursday, January 6, 2022
by AMAC, D.J. Wilson

A New Year’s resolution involves setting personal goals and improving traits that can lead us on the best path forward. Often, we can look to others, both past and present, for inspiration. One such man from the past who set a fine example for others was Colonel George W. Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal.

Modern Americans, a historic biographical school reader featuring “modern-day heroes,” acknowledged Colonel Goethals for his superior leadership abilities. Working as the chief engineer of the canal presented many challenges. Not only was building the Panama Canal a structurally complex task due to the redshifting hills of sand that threatened the project, but it was also an epic challenge to earn the support of the men working to build it. However, Goethals was purportedly so wise that he strived to make the workers happy so that they would work willingly hard.

Goethals would show up at his office every Sunday morning at seven o’clock to listen to anyone who wanted to talk. Then he would address complaints with fairness. He taught order to the workmen and eventually won them over, but it wasn’t easy. When they first heard of Goethals arrival, they were discontented. They disliked the notion that an army officer would be in charge, and the workers didn’t want to be forced to obey orders. Initially, the workmen were not friendly to him. But when Goethals appeared at the first banquet, he came dressed not in uniform but instead wearing civilian clothes. And he did not wish for people to salute him. Though some who spoke before him made cutting remarks about military control, the Colonel did not address it. Instead, he made clear their purpose. They were there to build a great canal, and their duty was not to him but rather to the United States of America.

Being a wise man, the Colonel knew a lot about human nature. In addition to understanding that people generally oppose control, he also knew that humans enjoy friendly competition. Therefore, one of his first acts was to organize the workmen into divisions to include the Atlantic, the Central, and the Pacific. He would then stir up competitions between the divisions. To encourage them along, he would tell the men on the Pacific division how rapidly the men on the Atlantic division were digging. This stirred the other divisions into making the best showings. The scores the divisions received grew to exciting proportions, and the book likened it to baseball scores. The men enjoyed the healthy competition and “worked hard and well.” And they began to salute him out of respect when he passed by.

When the Col. greeted people in his office, he learned that some lower-paid workers were being sworn at by their bosses. In his pursuit of a professional environment, he sent orders out all over the Canal Zone informing the men that the use of profane or abusive language by foremen or other authorities would not be tolerated. They listened. In fact, it is said that some of the foremen did not even speak for a while for fear of swearing out of habit. And, when an intoxicated engineer of the Panama Railroad ran into the rear coaches of another train, killing the conductor, Colonel Goethals had the man arrested and put in jail. This did not sit well with the labor union, who demanded the man’s release, and they threatened a strike that could stop the construction of the canal. The labor union committee said they would wait until seven pm for the Colonel’s answer. He listened to the committee, shook hands with them, and went home. The hours went by. The committee then called and asked for his answer. He replied that they had it. They suggested that the Colonel was trying to tie up the project, yet Goethals explained that the job was not a private enterprise, and he reminded them that it was a government job. He then said, “Any man not at work tomorrow morning will be given his transportation to the United States. He will go out on the first steamer, and he will never come back.” Only one man who was excused failed to report, and there were no more strikes.

Colonel Goethals appreciated the honor of being connected to the creation of the Panama Canal. He also noted that there were many great men who had labored hard. So, in May of 1913, when a congressman introduced a bill into the House of Representatives to promote Colonel Goethals to Major-General, the Colonel politely declined being singled out for such an honor. So, the bill was ultimately withdrawn, and the  Colonel was satisfied. Goethals hard work ethic can be traced to young age. When he was a little boy in New York City, he earned his first money by doing errands. And while other boys spent time playing ball, Goethals worked as a cashier and bookkeeper. Though he initially wanted to be a doctor, he decided to seek out military training to grow stronger. He attended West Point Military Academy, where he achieved three great honors; the first to have the highest grade as a student, the second to be named a leader and officer over all the rest of the class, and the third is to be chosen for an office by one’s classmates because they like him.” Goethals’ brain power, ability to lead, and likeability factor once again converged in the construction of the Panama Canal and ultimately led him to guide and complete what is now considered to be the greatest engineering feats of all time. Thus, his superior leadership skills and dedication challenge us to achieve.

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