5 Powerful Observations from the Panama Canal

Including the ‘secret of success in life’ from the man who built it

I recently had the opportunity to go through the Panama Canal and study the incredible effort that went into building this engineering wonder of the world.

Pulitzer Prize winning history David McCullough says this about the building of the Canal:

charlie1“It represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth. It held the world’s attention over a span of forty years. Great reputations were made and destroyed.” David McCullough

There are great lessons we can learn from the staggering effort it took to build the Canal, which ranked only behind the Egyptian Pyramids in greatest building project ever. So much dirt and rocks were removed to make that 48 mile route to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans that you could take it all and make a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York. You could stack all that spoil in a city block and it would go 16 miles up.

Here are 5 powerful examples of inspiration and leadership lessons we can take from one of the greatest engineering challenges in world history, including the secret of success for any company, school or church!

1) The Fire Within those that perished so that this Canal could be built

charlie2We think we have it so tough these days. People complain about the recent hard winter or the challenging economy of recent years. Well, what they had to endure to build that Canal puts things in perspective.

Close to 30,000 people died from the time possible routes were studied in the mid 1800’s to when it was finished in 1914. Back in 1954 there was an expedition of 27 men led by Colonel Isaac Strain to figure out a possible route of a Canal. They got so lost in the untamed hellish Panama jungle that they ate live toads to try to stay alive. Infestations of botfly maggots, which grew under the skin and fattened on human tissue, terrorized them. Six men starved to death. When they finally got out Strain (picture below), the leader, was down to 75 pounds and died a few years later having never recovered.

What they did, though, was provide valuable insights on where a possible Panama Canal route could be built. They set the stage for the next step, which would be a Panama Railroad that would be important to transport things when the Canal would be built. Over 6000 died building the railroad from cholera, dysentery, fever and more. Chinese workers dying from acute melancholiaa sharpened bamboo poles and plunged on them or their work machetes to end their misery.

When the French tried to build the Canal from 1881 to 1894, 20,000 died mostly from yellow fever and malaria. Still, they kept coming. One French engineer and his wife traveled to Panama with caskets, knowing what would happen to them. Twenty four Nuns came to serve. Twenty two died. Bodies were often pickled in barrels and shipped to teaching hospitals that needed cadavers to train budding physicians.

2) The French debacle in trying to build the Canal

Ferdinand de Lesseps was the man who led the French attempt at building the Canal. He had successfully led the building of the Suez Canal. At age 64 he fell in love with 20 year old Louise-Helene Autard de Bragard. He would father 12 children with her, the last when he was 80. Some have said that was a greater feat than building any Canal!

charlie3As far as leadership, Ferdinand had the ability to inspire people to invest in the challenge of building the Canal. He raised a ton of money, but he made a devastating mistake. He and his council insisted they construct a canal at sea-level, without locks, across the Panama isthmus. His Technical Committeee had way more politicians and officials than engineers, and they ignored a man who said it would only work with locks and a dam.

The French ended up spending 260 million and lost about 20,000 workers. People wondered if Ferdinand was a canal digger or a grave digger. They finally ran out of money and quit before selling the rights to build it to the United States.

3) The Success Leadership of the U.S. effort by Teddy Roosevelt

President Teddy Roosevelt led the U.S. building of the Panama Canal, which started in 1904. Unlike de Lesseps, he listened to his appointed Chief Engineer John Stevens about building the Canal with locks and dams. Roosevelt also went to the Canal during construction, becoming the first President to leave the United States while in office. He went during November, the harshest time, and he was all over the place. He listened to all kinds of workers from big shot leaders to guys carrying dirt. He operated a steam shovel. His visit was huge for morale.

charlie4Lesson learned? Leaders, get out of the office and out with the people and talk and listen to all levels.

4) Sometimes we need to come to a stop so that we can move better later!

charlie5What brought the French effort down was the devastation of the malaria and yellow fever. It was so bad that 3 of every 4 that got in the hospital did not make it out. For many, the last thing they saw before dying was their casket moved in the room to the foot of their bed. A big mistake they made came from trying to do something right. Ants were a problem, so they put the bedposts in buckets of water. That led to insects breeding right in the hospital.

Hospitals treated patients with high doses of whiskey, eggnog, or by rubbing kerosene and oil on them and giving them mustard baths. Basically, they didn’t have a clue.

Dr. William Gorgas figured out it was insects and pitched an extremely expensive and time consuming way to clean the place up. While many scoffed, Roosevelt and Stevens listened. Stevens shut down everything for over a year to sanitize the place like no place had ever been cleaned up. The building could wait. They drained swamps. They screened and fumigated buildings, even invading churches to clean out the fonts of holy water.

Millions were spent and within a couple of years they had wiped out yellow fever and malaria.

5) The Secret to Success, from the man who finished the Panama Canal

Stevens, for reasons that are still not known though some consider burnout, abruptly quit after 20 months so Roosevelt appointed Col. George Goethals in 1907. He led the way until the Canal was finished in 1914.

charlie6Every Sunday morning starting at sunup he would meet with anyone of the 40,000-plus workers about any complaint or problem. He met with them on a first-come basis regardless of where they were from or whatever their position was and he responded to their problems immediately. One of the requests was to transfer a steam-shovel engineer to another division because their baseball team needed a pitcher! Goethals granted that request.

Morale under his leadership was positive.

When the building of the Canal was nearly finished, a major slide occurred in 1913. Many of the engineers were ready to give it all up. Colonel Goethals was called to the mess. “What are we going to do now?” he was asked. He calmly looked over the scene, lit a cigarette and answered with “Hell, dig it out again.” That was his only reply.

The atmosphere of toughness and fairness generated by Goethals allowed his team to succeed where others had failed, and the project reached completion six months ahead of schedule.

Upon completion, he was asked what the secret of success was and his answer was simply this: “When everyone takes pride in their work.”

Below is a documentary I produced of the experience of going through the Panama Canal and the motivation we can draw from the incredible sacrifices paid to build it. You will see everything from how the locks work, to how unbelievably close the ships are to the walls, to the jungles that once claimed so many lives.

In future Stoke the Fire Within presentations, especially over the next year, I will share the leadership lessons from the building of the Canal.

Charlie-Adams-e1380639350131-150x150Charlie Adams is an Oxford native, graduate of Lafayette High School and a member of the Ole Miss Class of 1985. Adams is the author of 4 books on positive attitude and peak performance, including 2013′s “How to Build a Positive Attitude and KEEP the Darn Thing!!” and “Stoke the Fire Within.” His books and motivational keynotes and seminars are designed to make sure events reach their objectives and to help create winning cultures. Email him at:Charlie@stokethefirewithin.com.


  1. Nearly all of what you state is supprisingly legitimate and that makes me wonder the reason why I had not looked at this in this light before. This piece really did turn the light on for me personally as far as this specific subject matter goes. Nevertheless there is actually one particular point I am not necessarily too comfortable with and whilst I make an effort to reconcile that with the main theme of your issue, let me see exactly what the rest of your subscribers have to point out.Well done.

  2. Hmm it appears like your site ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for rookie blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate it.

  3. The other day, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it can survive a twenty five foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is totally off topic but I had to share it with someone!

  4. Greetings I am so grateful I found your weblog, I really found you by error, while I was searching on Yahoo for something else, Anyhow I am here now and would just like to say cheers for a marvelous post and a all round interesting blog (I also love the theme/design), I don韙 have time to go through it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read much more, Please do keep up the awesome job.

  5. Together with everything that appears to be developing inside this particular subject matter, all your viewpoints are generally very refreshing. However, I appologize, because I can not subscribe to your entire idea, all be it radical none the less. It seems to me that your opinions are not totally rationalized and in reality you are yourself not really fully certain of the assertion. In any event I did appreciate reading it.

  6. The root of your writing whilst sounding agreeable at first, did not really sit well with me after some time. Somewhere throughout the paragraphs you managed to make me a believer unfortunately only for a while. I nevertheless have a problem with your jumps in assumptions and you might do nicely to help fill in those gaps. In the event you actually can accomplish that, I would certainly be impressed.

  7. Please let me know if you’re looking for a article writer for your site. You have some really great articles and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some content for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an e-mail if interested. Regards!
    ray ban outlet vancouver

  8. Howdy, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam responses? If so how do you protect against it, any plugin or anything you can advise? I get so much lately it’s driving me mad so any help is very much appreciated.

  9. My developer is trying to convince me to move to .net from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of the expenses. But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using WordPress on various websites for about a year and am worried about switching to another platform. I have heard fantastic things about blogengine.net. Is there a way I can transfer all my wordpress content into it? Any help would be greatly appreciated!
    michael kors top-zip logo navy sale

  10. Awesome site you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about here? I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get comments from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Many thanks!

  11. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was wondering what all is needed to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web savvy so I’m not 100% sure. Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated. Cheers

  12. Hi there! I know this is kinda off topic but I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa? My website covers a lot of the same topics as yours and I think we could greatly benefit from each other. If you’re interested feel free to send me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Fantastic blog by the way!
    ray ban outlet austin

  13. The root of your writing while sounding agreeable originally, did not really work perfectly with me personally after some time. Somewhere within the sentences you were able to make me a believer unfortunately just for a very short while. I still have got a problem with your jumps in assumptions and one might do nicely to fill in all those breaks. If you can accomplish that, I will certainly be fascinated.
    michael kors kempton purse


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.