When Big Problems Call for Big Solutions

IMG_1138Emily had a problem.

It had been fourteen years since her father-in-law, John Roebling, had been commissioned by the city of New York to build the world’s longest suspension bridge. But Roebling died even before construction began. While taking some measurements for the bridge’s footings, his foot was crushed by a boat. He died from tetanus within weeks.

The job of overseeing the bridge’s construction fell to Roebling’s son, Washington. Unfortunately, he too met with tragedy. Long hours working inside one of the large, airtight chambers on the floor of the river – called “caissons” – Washington developed decompression sickness. The affliction didn’t kill him, as it had many others; but it did leave him incapacitated and unable to visit the project site.

Suddenly Washington’s wife Emily found herself acting as job foreman. It was a difficult undertaking. She had no background in engineering and most considered women incapable of handling such a complex project. But Emily set about educating herself in the art of bridge-building. Every day she carried her husband’s instructions to the more than 600 workers toiling away at the river.

Finally the bridge was finished. Over 150,000 people walked across the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. They were led by President Chester Arthur and Emily Roebling. Speeches, cannon fire, and fireworks celebrated the accomplishment.

But as I said, Emily had a problem.

You see, suspension bridges were still a relatively new form of construction. Critics had long labeled them unstable and incapable of carrying the kind of weight associated with regular foot and automobile traffic. As if to drive that point home, a stampede took place just six days after the bridge opened. Rumors began to spread that the bridge was collapsing and twelve people died in the mad rush to reach safety. After overcoming more than a decade of overcoming adversity and tragedy, the bridge seemed destined for failure once again.

Big projects come with big challenges. It takes a strong leader to turn them into big successes. Too often, the temptation is to back off and play it safe. Big moves could only make things that much worse. But sometimes, a big move is exactly what it takes. Sometimes, you need a big move in order to shake things up and change peoples’ minds.

Emily Roebling knew it would take something big to overcome this latest blow. She needed to make a statement – a very public statement – regarding the bridge’s safety. And to accomplish this, she reached out to the world’s biggest showman – PT Barnum. If anyone could help her out of this jam, it was Barnum.

And so, on May 17, 1884, P.T. Barnum led 21 elephants across the bridge. At the front of the line was Jumbo, the star of Barnum’s world-famous circus. The crowds followed and the bridge’s reputation was saved.

Do you have a big problem? Are you tempted to play it safe? To move carefully and avoid risk? Maybe that’s the right thing to do. Or maybe it’s time to take a chance. Maybe it’s time for move just as splashy as the problem you’re facing. Maybe it’s time to go big.


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