Symphonies of steel

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
When it was completed in late 1936, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was the longest steel high-level bridge in the world. More than 70 years later, it still maintains that distinction. Its counterpart, the Golden Gate Bridge, was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was finished several months later and its beauty and strength continue to captivate us today. Together, these engineering "symphonies of steel" represent the culmination of a dream held by many people.

Undertaking this project was no small endeavor for many reasons. The team of public and private business leaders spearheading the project not only had to overcome a myriad of naysayer's, but had to acquire the resources for what still remains one of the greatest expenditure of funds ever used for a single structure in the history of man. This is all the more impressive given it occurred in the midst of the greatest financial depression our nation has ever known!

The original idea for the two bridges date back to various times in the late 1800s, fueled in part by a desire to provide an alternative to the only means of transportation available between San Francisco and the East Bay - the ferry. However, perhaps the equally compelling reason for undertaking such an ambitious project rested in the desire to build something truly unique and magnificent. To create something bold, much like cathedrals of old, capable of benefiting mankind for countless generations. A timeless monument to what can be accomplished when people choose to selflessly build bridges towards others. 

Building bridges toward others 

Bridges serve many purposes, not the least of which are they help us reach our destinations, enable us to avoid difficulties and serve as symbols of collective efforts to address common needs. Throughout recorded history, the building of bridges has helped push back boundaries; precipitated the redrawing of maps; and enabled roads and railways to close gaps and provide access to previously unreachable territory.
But bridge-building also has metaphoric meaning, denoting the desire to connect and link people, places, ideas and even nations. For example, the League of Nations built bridges between nations following World War I, and the United Nations continues to work to build bridges between diverse nations, tribes and cultures today. Thus, bridge-building reflects the spirit of creativity, risk-taking, commitment, and sacrifice that helps us to satisfy our innate human desire to connect with others.
However, if we are serious about pursuing this desire to be bridge-builders ourselves, we too must create structures in our lives that are just as significant, profound and capable of improving life for others as the symphonies of steel of the San Francisco Bay. However, we just don't call these structures bridges, we call them relationships. 

The building blocks of relationships 

Relationships cannot be expected to simply happen by chance or be wished or willed into existence. Much like the enduring bridges of the San Francisco Bay, the foundation for relationships must be carefully poured and their structure intentionally designed and reinforced. 

Just as a great bridge requires a variety of materials to construct, the materials required to create successful relationships are also quite diverse. However, instead of concrete and sand, iron or steel, the building blocks of relationship are not things you necessarily touch, but instead are core practices you choose to make a part of your life. That is, purposeful practices that help you connect and function well with others despite differences in background or belief, skin color or gender, bank account balance or zip code.

These other-centric practices, simple acts we perform in order to demonstrate to others our desire to connect with them in meaningful ways, are not difficult or complicated. Instead, they are simple gestures we can put into practice everyday which enable us to be our authentic selves in the presence of one another; which encourage us to be open to redefining excellence from something we expect to get to something we must first learn to give; and which empower us to fulfill our roles in helping others grow into the fullness of their potential while moving ever closer to our own.

Thus, building a bridge toward others requires we abandon any thoughts of judgment or prejudice, and instead, embrace opportunities to connect with those around us in a manner that communicates we care. Be it as simple as sharing a warm smile, a kind word or a gentle touch, every time we take the opportunity to build relationships of mutual trust we move one step closer to becoming the kind of leader capable of moving the dreams of people's hearts to the playing field of their lives.

Leaders who choose to give the best of themselves to selflessly build bridges toward others.

Called to be bridge builders 

In the end, building the "symphonies of steel" was the product of a team of self-motivated, deeply collaborative and diverse people who shared a vision of transforming what others viewed as impossible into something we now see as inspirational. However, this transformation was not simply a product of bringing building materials together in a new way, but lay in the ability to accomplish through relationship what could never have been accomplished alone - to build bridges allowing people to connect in new, meaningful and powerful ways.
Are you a bridge-builder? 

Do you value that which connects and brings people together? 

Might there be some bridges in your life that are badly in need of repair? 

Remember, in the midst of a fast-paced world that makes it all too easy to focus on ourselves, choosing to put into practice opportunities to enable, encourage and empower others to develop the deeper, richer, more authentic forms of relationship we all yearn for is at the heart of second-mile leadership. 

The kind of leadership that compels each of us to build bridges capable of spanning the great divide between the rich and the poor; between the healthy and the hurting; between friends as well as foes. 

Not because we have to, but because we choose to.

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.