Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Roles of the Leader)


When Sally and I took our trip to Scotland, one of the places we stopped was to see the Firth of Forth Bridge, just west of Edinburgh.  It was considered Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder and carries trains across the more than 8,000 feet of track across the Firth of Forth.  The bridge was built between 1882 and 1890, making it a marvel of engineering for the times.  It’s designed to withstand the strong winds consistently found in the area. If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, you may remember this bridge from “The 39 Steps.”

What struck me was that someone had the vision to cross the river, stuck with the project (despite other bridge failures in the United Kingdom at the time), designed and redesigned the structure, and organized the building of the bridge.  Similar stories of bridge builders like John Roebling and his son, Washington Roebling who built the Brooklyn Bridge (David McCullough’s book, “The Great Bridge” tells the fascinating story of this family and the personal cost they paid to complete it) or Michael O’Shaughnessy and Joseph Strauss (who overcame resistance, the Great Depression, and several engineering challenges and opened the iconic structure in 1937) demonstrate the power of strong vision coupled with perseverance in the face of overwhelming opposition and navigating unexpected breakdowns of all shapes and sizes that is are demonstrations of essential elements of leadership.

Several years ago, I was trying to think of a way to visualize what leadership “looked like.”  I met with my brother, Steve, a talented graphic artist, and we agonized over what the model should be.  Finally, we settled on the idea of a bridge.

My reasoning was that a bridge best represented the leader’s job because it took you from one place to another in an easier, more direct way than alternatives, allowed things to happen below it without interruption, and was sturdy enough to withstand storms.  I provided Steve with what, at the time, I thought were the key elements of leadership (I continue to refine my thinking, but this still captures the core of my theory) and he created this model in 2012:

Leadership Model Bridge GLD.jpg


Notice the key elements and where they’re placed (my apologies to my friends who actually know how to build bridges):

  • Manage and Lead Yourself – Most of a bridge’s weight is supported by cables held up by the towers.  What holds leadership together and is the most important focus of leadership is self-care – what Anderson and Adams call “the inner game.” You have to be able to create and sustain your energy in the physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual domains of your life in order to have the energy to be at your best and carry the weight of the job.  You have to be able to recognize, monitor, and shift your emotional state when you’re grabbed.  And you have to clearly understand your purpose in life and a vision for where your life is headed.  That’s the personal aspect of leading.  With that taken care of, leaders are able to focus on the organization they’re leading.
  • The two supports and the entry to and exit from the bridge are about leaders creating, sharing, and gaining commitment around organizational purpose. Clarifying why we exist – our vision, mission, values, and the culture we want to create – and then recognizing individual and collective achievement of that purpose, is critical for creating an environment of commitment.  Why are we dedicating our lives to this work?  Why should we give our discretionary effort to the tasks we have to perform?  How does the purpose of the organization align with my purpose?  When leaders clarify and fulfill their organization’s purpose, they most likely will see levels of engagement, commitment, and accountability that other organizations find difficult to achieve.

Once you’ve paid attention to yourself and created the organizational purpose and a clear definition of what it would look like to fulfill that purpose, there’s foundational work to do.  That work starts with ensuring people, processes, and systems are aligned in pursuit of achieving purpose.  The left side of the bridge shows what it takes to create the organizational framework and key elements that enable this alignment to take place:

  • Defining and communicating why we exist is something that must frequently be repeated by leaders and demonstrated in the decisions they make, the people they hire, the policies they approve, and the way the organization fulfills its work. In many organizations I’ve visited or been part of, when I’ve asked anyone if they know their vision, mission, or values, the most frequent answer is, “Why yes; it’s on the wall in that nicely framed, calligraphy parchment”  or “We have it in our strategic plan (that sits on the shelf).”  But when I ask them to tell me the essence of what it says, they usually come up blank.  Every person in the organization needs to know the vision, the mission, and the values or behaviors that we expect each other to exhibit and internalize each of them in each individual’s day-to-day work.  This definition and communicating starts with leaders making it a priority, letting others know and reminding them of their importance – frequently.
  • For most of my professional life, I looked for a clear understanding of what a business model was. Whenever I talked to a financial person, they would tell me, “give me your cost and revenue projections for the next five years.”  Not being a financial expert, that usually ended up being a guessing game and not very helpful in understanding the many elements of the model.  But then I discovered Osterwalder’s and Pigneur’s work, “Business Model Generation,” in which they introduced the business model “canvas” (for a download of this great work, see ).  Creating, monitoring, and improving your business model, based on the changing times and changing customer preferences, becomes much easier when using this graphical representation and, ultimately, still shows you the revenues and costs of your business and how those financials are created.
  • Certainly, as a leader, providing direction is vital. Einstein said, “The leader is one who, out of the clutter, brings simplicity… out of discord, harmony… and out of difficulty, opportunity.”  But how do you do that?  What do you delegate?  What do you reserve for yourself?  How do you avoid micromanagement but ensure that people are clear on the work needed to be done?  What’s the ideal span of control? (I had to get that pun in at least once.)  A lot has to do with who you’ve hired to be part of your organization.  Talented, committed, engaged people will hold themselves to a high standard in completing work and often don’t need specific direction.  They just need to understand where we’re collectively headed, the rules of the game and boundaries, and what it looks like to win.   Effective meetings, clear plans, clear expectations, and frequent conversations are just some of the ways that leaders create the frameworks for providing direction.

We’re halfway across the bridge.  As a leader, we’re taking care of ourselves and clear on our personal purpose, have clarified organizational purpose, and created the framework.  Now it’s time to focus on actually performing the work.  Three elements in my model illustrate key activities:

  • Every leader influences those in the organization by their words and actions.  How we influence others as leaders has a lot to do with our success. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who named the concept of “flow”) wrote: “If management views workers not as valuable, unique individuals but as tools to be discarded when no longer needed, then employees will also regard the firm as nothing more than a machine for issuing paychecks, with no other value or meaning.”  Building relationships with the people we lead is a start to influencing others.  You may have the best intentions but may be seen by those you lead as having totally different intentions.  Your ability to influence or not influence people – what Fred Kofman refers to as the “We” (relationship) dimension of leadership – can make or break even the best plans and business models and result in you falling short of your vision and not being able to achieve your mission.
  • Perhaps the greatest institutional and relational breakdown comes from the inability to successfully coordinate action within an organization through effective requests, solid promises, productive conflict, and legitimate complaints that take care of people instead of beating each other up. A leader has to have thorough understanding of these interpersonal dimensions of organizations and a deep understanding of the subtleties of how they contribute to successful outcomes or not.  In addition, the leader must know how to insist on direct conversations among all members of the organization, no matter how “difficult” they might be.
  • Achieving results is the ultimate goal of a business. But what results are we trying to achieve?  What are we measuring and how do we measure those results?   Profitability?  Customer satisfaction?  Employee satisfaction?  Our individual bonus structure?  Is everyone aligned around what results matter?  According to Kofman, the ultimate result of any organization is “happiness – happiness for customers, for stakeholders, for employees, for leaders, for vendors and suppliers.”  This is achieved by one team working for the ultimate good of the entire organization.

In 1970, Simon and Garfunkel released their hit, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.  Paul Simon used the simile of a bridge to represent someone who could help others over troubled times.

When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all (all)
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you 
I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Leaders can be the bridge over troubled waters for themselves, the people in the organization, and their collective efforts.  By understanding and executing some basic roles, their chances of doing this increase dramatically.

© Geoff Davis, 1/11/19




One thought on “Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Roles of the Leader)

  1. Cathy Reichelderfer

    You never cease to amaze me! You have delivered in this one blog more depth, guidance and wisdom than I have encountered in many full length books. I will be adding this to my playbook and tool box. Thank you for continually sharing your wisdom and gifts. And thanks to God for gracing us with the gift of you in our lives 🙂

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