The Forth Bridge

Twice in the last two weeks I’ve cited the Forth Rail Bridge to describe what I increasingly recognise as a not uncommon challenge – being called upon, like Sisyphus, to do the same thing again and again.

Famously, but perhaps apocryphally, the Forth Bridge offered a couple of hardy Scots lifelong employment in the rain, wind and sleet of the Firth of Forth painting and repainting it. A masterpiece of cantilevered Victorian design, it needs constant painting to keep it from corroding. I remember being told as a child that it took the two men five years to do from end to end. Then they had a day off. Then they started again.

At times organisational life is not unlike painting the Forth Bridge. Any organisation worth its salt divides opinion. Putting your best foot forward, making the case and explaining the strategy to the world, outside and in, is a Sisyphean task of care and maintenance.

I’ve started thinking about work as a bit like our busy family home. Something always needs fixing. It can be a bit untidy. There are shelves to put up and occasionally walls to knock down. Just when you have it looking ship-shape the shower leaks or a roof tile falls off. And then there’s that plan for the loft conversion or a new fridge. You live with – not just in – a house. And so it is at work.

I found myself getting frustrated about a misfiring corporate function the other day. But then I thought it’s a bit like an old chest freezer – burns a lot of electricity, some frozen leftovers in the bottom, but still doing a job. Sure a swanky new one would be nice, but there are other things which need fixing, upgrading, repainting first.

The best you can do with a family home is live well in it, keep it structurally sound and leave it in better shape than you found it. I think that’s a lot of what leading an organisation is about too. As Aristotle might say, the job of the bridge painter is to paint bridges, and of the good bridge painter to paint bridges well. There is satisfaction to be found in painting my Forth Bridge well.

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