Bigger, Faster Leadership: Lessons from the builders of the Panama Canal by Samuel R. Chand is an interesting treatise on leadership using the lessons learned by the builders of the Panama Canal as a concrete (pun intended!) metaphor for massive challenges that leaders face. Chand is a public speaker, leadership consultant and author of more than a dozen books. He was the past president of Beulah Heights University, which became one of the largest predominantly African-American Christian colleges in the US during his time there. He has mentored leaders in churches and ministries as well as international corporations and business start-ups. He was named one of the top thirty global leadership gurus by www.leadershipgurus.net. (per publisher)
Chand states his thesis in his introduction (pg xvii): ” The only way organizations can grow bigger and move faster is by accelerating the excellence of their systems and structures.” His explaination of the five basic lifecycle stages that every organization passes through in Chapter 1 is helpful in orienting the reader to how his or her organization fits into the framework of Chand’s discussion. Chand reminds the reader that “the systems that brought you to this point may not be the ones to take you to where you believe God wants you to go.” (pg 13) Instead, “Systems must continually adapt to the needs and opportunities of the moment, Static systems gradually lose relevance, but dynamic systems anticipate evolving needs.” (pg 14)
Every organization has a “compelling need” that it was designed to fill. Clearly identifying that need and building support systems and processes designed to meet that need is critical. This need must drive the organization’s vision (and the corresponding vision of the leaders of the organization). However, gaining buy-in from employees is critical. Leaders can help this by the way in which they approach change or new ventures. Rather than simply presenting the new venture, Chand suggests prefacing the presentation with an invitation to employees that positions the new venture as “an idea that I think is a great idea but that I would like your input to expand it and shape it for our organization.” Chand states that the key characteristic of a great leader is a person who brings out the best in their team. They surround themselves with people who will challenge them to strive for more, not people who are mere mirrors of themselves.
Interwoven throughout Chand’s basic leadership philosophy were stories of the people and challenges faced throughout the building of the Panama Canal. Aficionados of history will love the flavor this adds to a traditional leadership or business improvement text. This was especially noteworthy in the 2nd chapter where Chand drew parallels between the colossal failure of the French in 1885 to build the canal. In chapter 6 he uses the mosquitoes carrying Malaria and yellow fever to the Canal builders as a metaphor for the problems (sometimes hard to detect) that today’s leaders face. Chand also weaves personal leadership experience stories into the chapters in order to illustrate key points making this a practical book rather than a philosophical tome.