By: Jack Bobo
Some years ago, John Gardner popularized the notion that “one man can do anything.” Indeed, many, if not most of the significant events in history are associated with the name of one person.
Ordinarily, this concept is viewed as a positive and implies accomplishment through some combination of inventiveness, creativity, leadership and/or a special brand of charisma. However, such is not always the case, for those same talents can also be used in a destructive way. Certainly, the events of recent weeks demonstrate how this may come to pass.
Perhaps a better example, for purposes of this article, will require going a bit further back in history. In the last half of the 19th century, there emerged on the world scene a man with all these great qualities. Ferdinand DeLesseps possessed enormous charisma, combined with leadership and engineering skills, which he used successfully as the driving force in the building of the Suez Canal.
Against overwhelming obstacles and universal doubt, DeLesseps achieved an engineering and logistic miracle for those times. Because of this accomplishment, he received the adulation of people whenever and wherever he appeared. He became the pre-eminent “authority” on canal building, and any such project that did not meet with his approval would not have attracted a dime of support.
Quite logically then, it was DeLesseps the world turned to when the French were considering the construction of a canal on the Isthmus of Panama. He accepted the challenge, but then committed a grave error.
Because of the pre-eminence bestowed upon him, he ignored the advice of lesser lights in the engineering world and did not fully probe the problems associated with this new venture. Instead, he viewed the project as just another Suez when, in reality, the obstacles posed by this new venture were entirely different.
DeLesseps thereby led the people of France into a catastrophe. After spending 1.5 billion francs and wasting over 20,000 lives, the effort ended in failure and for the leaders, disgrace and prison.
Is there a lesson for us that may be learned from this experience? In my view, there is and a very important one at that.