Lesson #3 From The Johnstown Flood (1889)
When the South Fork dam collapsed in 1889, sending 5 billion gallons of water hurtling down the Little Conemaugh River toward Johnstown, Pennsylvania, (sweeping more than 2000 people to their deaths), the courts blamed God since He is in charge of rainfall. That’s convenient, but it’s not as simple as that.
In Lesson #1 we learned that brush, hemlock boughs, hay and horse manure were used to repair the cracks and leaks in the dam. Horse manure? Yes! No wonder the dam collapsed. But it’s not as simple as that.
In Lesson #2 we learned that the discharge pipes were removed and the spillways clogged so there was no way to release the water as it rose. No wonder the dam was breached when the heavy rains came. But it’s not as simple as that.
At some point, a few feet were graded off of the top of the dam so it would be wide enough for carriages to pass each other as they enjoyed an afternoon of sight seeing—going back and forth across the dam. After all, the top of the dam is the very best place to view the lake and one way carriage traffic is very inconvenient. The lowered dam meant it would be breached sooner as the rains came. But it’s not as simple as that.
Somehow, no one knows for sure how, when the grading was finished there was a low spot in the middle of the dam. Therefore, when the water began to first breach the dam, it was at the low spot in the middle where the water pressure is the highest. (The pressure is highest where the water is deepest.) So the highest pressure was at the lowest and weakest part of the dam. Surely that explains why it failed. But it’s not as simple as that.
There is no simple explanation as to why the dam failed. A combination of record rainfall, horse manure, clogged spillways, a widened carriage path and shoddy grading job were all in the mix. But it’s not as simple as that because except for the rainfall, all of these things happened because of decisions made by the South Fork Dam leaders. The dam failed because it was weak, but it was weak because the leadership was weak.
Organization failures often follow the same pattern as the South Fork dam: cut a little here, a poor decision there, some compromise for convenience, ignore some known weaknesses, add in some extra pressure from the outside, then boom, the whole thing (business, church, family, etc.) suddenly and rapidly collapses and a lot of people are swept away. Call it whatever you want, but the truth is: it’s a leadership failure.
Leadership is not easy and it’s not simple because complexity is a fact of life. Businesses are complex. Ministries are complex. Government is complex. Even families are complex. There are a lot of things that can go wrong and it’s the leader’s job to make sure they don’t. So the next time you hear yourself saying “it’s a no brainer” or “that’s simple,” be careful, because not much in today’s world is really as simple as that.
[Read the full story of the flood in The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, my favorite author in the genre of American history.]
"The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present."
Kouzes & Posner
Thank you for writing this.
As a person in a position of leadership, I struggle with knowing with confidence that I am ready to lead.
I take seminars, read books, etc. but I haven’t located an overall “test”, like when one gets a thorough annual physical.
So, I am continually concerned (and sometimes discover) that I may have a “weak spot where the pressure is highest”, and not really know until the dam breaks.
Any ideas on doing a “thorough leader checkup” so one can be relatively confident that all critical areas are addressed?
Scott, thanks for the comment. Sorry for the slow reply but a “thorough leader checkup” needed some thought. As it relates to this post, the dam failed because of unintended consequences. They didn’t take time to ask “What are the risks of lowering the dam?” – “Removing the drainage pipes? and so on. Risk analysis is a huge part of leadership. Every decision needs to be thoroughly vetted with “What could go wrong?” Only the most arrogant leaders believe every decision they make has no downside. As it relates to your business, spend some time reviewing how decisions are made, who makes them, what questions are asked, what risks considered, what could go wrong with our technology, etc. My guess is you are doing well, but watch out for unintended consequences.