Panama Points

January 25, 2012

Author David Kord Murray opines in Borrowing Brilliance that almost all good ideas are borrowed, and the farther afield one roams from the topic at hand the more useful the idea may be (and the more brilliant it may appear to be).

So it didn’t surprise me to discover useful ideas for modern day leadership and management in a book written in the 1970s about a period many years before that – David McCullough’s history of the building of the Panama Canal titled The Path Between the Seas.

I learned first that the primary task of this huge project was not what it appears to be. It was not primarily an engineering feat, but medical. Not removing dirt, but disease. Not conquering the largest obstacles, but the smallest insects. It was only after the diseases were understood and controlled that the construction could advance and the project could be completed.

Second, I learned that once the construction was begun, there was a bigger challenge than digging the pathway clear. It was removing the unwanted dirt and debris to other places. It wasn’t the front end of the project alone that mattered, but the back end as well: where to put the hundreds of millions of tons of rock and dirt on or around this narrow isthmus of land.

For every project there is need to assess what the underlying issues are that might get in the way of accomplishing the more apparent tasks before us.

And for every project there is need to fully assess consequences. We don’t want merely to move the dirt around, creating new problems as we do so.

I will be considering these thoughts as I soon see with my own eyes the Panama Canal, constructed over four decades and completed almost 100 years ago. And gratefully, I will be fully immunized for diseases largely conquered during the completion of this engineering marvel.

Cheering for Sportsmanship

July 31, 2018

(This blog first appeared on on January 8, 2013.)

I try to start each new school year at the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association summer camp at Michigan State University. I talk briefly about who the MHSAA is and what it does; and then two or three dozen high school newspaper editors and writers ask me questions; and in doing so, they give me clues to what’s going on in our schools and what’s important to our students.

Several years ago, when I opened the session to questions, one young man asked: “Mr. Roberts, what’s your job?” I paused, and then said, “I guess I’m the head cheerleader for high school sports in Michigan.”

So then this precocious student asked: “Okay, what do you cheer for?”  With a briefer pause, this is some of what I said:

  • I cheer for sportsmanship that’s not merely good, but great.

  • I cheer for sportsmanship, not gamesmanship.

  • I cheer for playing by the rules, both the letter and the spirit.

  • I cheer for maximum effort to try to win each and every contest.

  • I don’t cheer for winning at any cost; I do cheer for learning at every opportunity.

  • I cheer for losing with grace and for winning with even greater grace, with humility and modesty.

  • I cheer for the lessons of victory and the even greater lessons of defeat.