Bridges, Whaleboats, and Trust

November/December 2017

NSPE Today: Outlook
Bridges, Whaleboats, and Trust



Sixty years ago, NSPE founder David B. Steinman, P.E., Ph.D., was recognized as the world’s foremost bridge designer, designing hundreds of bridges on five continents. At the pinnacle of his career, he wrote, “A bridge is more than a thing of steel and stone: it is the fulfillment of human dreams to link together distant places. A bridge is more than a problem in stresses and strains; it is a challenge and an opportunity to create the beautiful.”

In July 2017, in Atlanta, our NSPE legislative body, the House of Delegates, voted 81-10 to approve a new membership model. The model was designed over a span of two-plus years. The design included thoughtful input from our many states and state executives; in-depth discussions and detailed analyses of options; vigorous debate; and countless hours of volunteer and staff leadership travel, listening, problem solving, and decision making.

The newly approved membership model is a bridge of sorts. The model aims to strengthen membership, create efficiencies, and ensure the long-term health of the “three-tier” NSPE. Interestingly, the model is a restatement of several of our founder’s reasons, which he wrote in “Registration of Engineers—Objects and Advantages,” for creating NSPE in 1934:

  • “Establish the solidarity of the Profession (‘NSPE is the established means for welding together the State Societies in united purpose, effort and achievement, and for extending the professional program on a national scale.’)
  • Provide a sound basis for organization of Engineers for united effort, with emphasis on unity, rather than differentiation, of interest, and,
  • Provide for interstate cooperation and reciprocity.”

The analogy of rowing a whaleboat may well describe the teamwork needed to implement the membership model. As such, the whaleboat, with its coxswain and rowers, is an example of needed organization and efficiency. My engineering friend Lyle Feisel expressed the following in his book Lyle’s Laws: Reflections on Ethics, Engineering, and Everything Else: “Rowing is hard work, requiring considerable amount of effort if the craft is going to make any progress. Furthermore, all the rowers must be synchronized. If one decides to row a little slower or a little faster or would prefer to set a different course, chaos will reign.… There are also people who are very hard workers but who work only in their own interest and not in that of their organization.… It takes only one, though, to slow the organization’s progress seriously and have it limping along like a whaleboat with all of its rowers pulling hard, but with one who is out of sync with the others.”

Effective rowing requires deep-seated teamwork. And a successful team is one that accomplishes the results it sets out to achieve. However, teamwork is not a virtue; it is a choice. In Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide, Patrick Lencioni wrote, “Members of great teams trust one another on a fundamental, emotional level, and they are comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears, and behaviors.… Teams that trust one another, engage in conflict, commit to decisions, and hold one another accountable are very likely to set aside their individual needs and agendas and focus almost exclusively on what is best for the team. They do not give in to the temptation to place their departments, career aspirations, or ego-driven status ahead of the collective results that define team success.”

After being proclaimed “the poet who writes in steel,” Steinman decided, in the last years of his life, to begin writing his poetry with pen and ink. Perhaps his vision, as captured in “I Built a Bridge,” extends to today and the need for state societies to integrate and support the new membership model:

“I built a bridge across a gulf
To reach my fellow man;
With heart aglow he came halfway
And helped me build the span.”

To build NSPE’s span into the future and strengthen our network of organizations, I wholeheartedly encourage volunteer leaders to join the growing number of state societies that have chosen integrated affiliation. By doing so, your state will be making a major contribution to enhancing professional unity and our service to this great profession.
Business People Rowing in a Boat