All industry professionals go through a maturation process that shapes their approach to challenges they face daily to become effective leaders—and Colonel George Washington Goethals, who led the successful U.S. completion of the Panama Canal a century ago, is no exception.

As the canal's huge expansion nears completion, we need to study how Goethals, the one-time Corps of Engineers officer, prepared himself for the task in distinct stages—which I call his apprentice, journeyman and expert phases.

Goethals's career progression and broad skills prepared him well for the huge challenge of his canal leadership appointment in the early part of the 20th century.

His apprentice phase began at West Point, where he showed a strong aptitude for engineering and signs of leadership as well—becoming class president and graduating second in the class of 1880. As a young engineer, Goethals was very competent and well respected, although somewhat aloof and introverted.

His early service included work on the Western frontier, where he gained a reputation as one of the most promising men in the Army, and in Cincinnati, where he received his first exposure to large-scale Corps civil-works infrastructure programs on the Ohio River.

Finding a Mentor

While this experience would serve him well in Panama, more importantly, he was exposed to a great mentor—Lt. Col. William Merrill, district commander there.

In just 11 months, he challenged Goethals and maximized his first experience in handling the difficulties of river-based inland infrastructure. Here we can see a good example of the role mentors play in building future great leaders.

Early recognition of his talents would enable Goethals to serve in positions of greater responsibility throughout his career.

Goethals then entered his journeyman phase, adding to his responsibilities and honing his technical expertise—but more importantly, boosting his leadership and management prowess.In 1889, he oversaw complex lock-and-dam work on the Tennessee River along the Thimble Shoals. While this project's 26-ft high lock was the highest ever built at that time, the engineering challenges were not nearly as difficult as the job of establishing good relations with the public and politicians to overcome years of delays and political wrangling.

Already showing a keen understanding of his role as "master integrator," Goethals leveraged his experience while still in his early 30s to an even bigger challenge—managing 260 miles of Tennessee River projects. And he did this in a holistic way that blended sound engineering with good management. He assigned responsibility to others and designed a system of parallel project execution—actions he would repeat in Panama.

Great leaders are effective delegators and strong communicators, and Goethals' reputation as a "get it done" problem-solver catapulted him in 1894 to become the most junior officer at Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C.—which began his expert, or strategic, leadership phase.

His service on the staff of the Army’s Chief of Engineers, in the field during the Spanish-American War; on coastal defense missions with the Navy; and as an Army staff officer gave him broad exposure and oversight of all Corps and Army programs—including doctrine, war plans, staffing, equipment, training, logistics, budgets and facilities.

Goethals’ many congressional interactions proved invaluable in Panama and illustrates his ability to manage—the art of orchestrating things—and to lead—the art of influencing people.

The Panama Canal had already had two chief engineers trying to build the project based on the earlier French experience there. But with challenges ranging from scope uncertainty to disease, both resigned, which opened an opportunity.

Goethals' reputation preceded him, impressing President Theodore Roosevelt and War Secretary William Howard Taft so that, on Feb. 18, 1907, the Corps officer was summoned to the White House late at night, where Roosevelt offered him the Panama Canal Chief Engineer position which he accepted.

Prepared to Lead

In retrospect, every apprentice, journeyman and expert/strategic opportunity in Goethals' career path prepared him to lead the canal project, a 400 year old dream.