Are You a Bridge Building Leader?

A crowded Montgomery, AL city bus stopped at its usual spot and a middle-aged African-American woman boarded the bus. As the bus pulled away, she realized every seat on the bus was taken and was prepared to take the trip standing on her feet. But, something changed that stance. Three different white men in three different locations on the bus simultaneously got up to give their seat to the middle-aged woman.  

It was cold morning in early December 2016; almost exactly sixty-one years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man boarding the Montgomery city bus near the exact same bus stop. It was a commentary on the unifying impact this “mother of civil rights” made through her non-violent act of courage.

Rosa Parks was a bridge builder. The daughter of a teacher, she was quiet, soft spoken and sensitive. Diplomatic by nature, she selected a simple and ordinary act as the underpinning for an important and complex cultural transformation. When she was arrested for violating a racist law, she triggered a 381-day boycott by blacks of the city bus system. African-Americans at that time made up two-thirds of the riders on the bus. The Supreme Court overturned the law and a powerful bridge began to be constructed between the races.

Why must leaders be bridge builders? Bridge builders are needed to repair the “dark side” of organization. Like a world-class pit crew, organizations are the handmaiden of efficiency. However, as organizations grow in complexity with accountability and rewards accruing to individuals (and individual units), a crack can occur in the foundation of collective order. Employees start to view other units within the enterprise in rather negative ways—obstructionist, competitors, and selfish. The seeds are sown for the most insidious weeds of organizational strangulation—silos. At some point the sickness of silos overtakes the strength of their efficiency. It takes a bridge builder leader to resurrect the connectedness crucial to shared effectiveness.

Rosa Parks’ actions can be instructive in educating leaders how to effectively construct connections between units.  In the countless eulogies following her death in 2005 at age 92, we learned that she never wavered in her commitment to being a bridge building leader. Her courage was not the reflection of a single moment on a bus, but the soul of a person of true moral fiber.  As a leader, she was focused, sensitive and humble until her death. Bridge builders follow three key principles.

Focus on a Higher Purpose

When Nelson Mandela left prison after a 26-year sentence and was inaugurated as the President of South Africa, he realized his first goal was to achieve reconciliation necessary to rebuild the country culturally, not just economically. The country was in emotional disarray following years of apartheid. He sent a powerful, symbolic message to his country when he invited the same prison guards who had harassed him for years to be his guests of honor at the inauguration. It was a signal that trust was required if the country was to realize a higher purpose. And, that trust had to begin with his actions.

The principal driver that fueled Rosa Parks' non-violent act was her allegiance to simple purpose—fairness. Key to building bridges between units is to remind people of their collective purpose. Commitment is nurtured through a common cause that is crafted in meaning and value to those who pursue it.

Focus on Partnership

Great leaders know that if they take care of the relationship, results will follow. “Successful partnerships are not built on deals and contracts,” said Marriott CEO Bill Marriott, Jr. “They work because of the heart and soul of the relationship.” The soft side of partnering includes keeping agreements, telling the truth, showing respect, and demonstrating a commitment to the relationship. It includes crafting protocols that ensure understanding and minimize dissension. The hard side of great partnering requires valuing the whole as much as the sum of the parts. It means joint accountability must be embraced not just accommodated. It entails seeking metrics that effectively gauge collective toil not ones aimed at fueling the “gotcha” blame game.

Create Settings for Interdependence

When Ron DeFeo assumed the CEO role of Terex, a large manufacturer of heavy construction equipment, the company was an amalgamation of several companies. Realizing the route to synergy included breaking down the emotional walls that separated them, he used a company-wide meeting as a tool for bridge building. The four hundred leaders sat as their old company in one of three sections of the ballroom. He asked all three sections to shout their former company name at the same time. It was obviously total and complete noise. Then, he asked them to together shout the new company name—Terex. The symbolism of clarity served as a tone-setter for joint goal setting, joint strategy discussions, and joint updates on products and solutions.

Changing silos into alliances does not occur suddenly. The civil rights movement lasted decades. And, it was not a smooth transformation from a compilation of well-coordinated initiatives. It was a collection of quick wins from many isolated efforts. Great bridge building leaders are patient. But, like the leaders of the civil rights movement, they seize small opportunities to move toward a clear and present goal that never escapes their sights. They know that bridge building can involve two steps forward and one step back.  Yet, like Rosa Parks, it begins with the courage and commitment to take the first step.