A Hole In The Dam

In 1865, American author Mary Mapes Dodge published “The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland.” You may or may not have heard of this novel, but you have almost certainly heard of one of the sub-stories in the book: the story of the little boy who saved Holland by putting his finger in a hole in the dike. Interestingly, this story is not popular in Holland, and is not considered part of their heritage. In Holland, people know that you can’t prevent a flood by putting a finger in a hole in the dike. When the water comes, the dike will completely cave in, and one finger won’t help at all.

This is the point.

A dam is a structure that is holding back the hydrostatic pressure of the water contained in the reservoir behind it. The water wants (if water can, in fact, want) to flow out and keep moving. The dam resists the water’s attempt to flow, and the result is pressure on the dam from the water and a resulting opposite force on the water by the dam. In other words, the water and the dam are in a struggle.

As long as the dam has structural integrity, it will win the battle with the water. However, like squirrels trying to get in your attic, the water is relentless. It constantly probes for the smallest cracks or holes and then, starting with just a few molecules, it moves through the space to escape. As the water moves, it carries very small amounts of the dam material with it (erosion) and enlarges the hole so more water can move, and more material can be carried off. This process is not linear, it is exponential, meaning that it may take a very long time for the hole to be noticeable, but as the hole gets bigger, it continues to get bigger faster. Finally, the dam fails catastrophically as the erosion curve goes vertical. 

(By now you’re wondering what all this has to do with anything that a non-engineer would be interested in.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way the structures of our society function. All the social, economic, and political systems we are familiar with serve as dams that hold something back. In many cases, these things need to be contained. Laws try to limit our exposure to crime and behaviors that are detrimental to the community. Our monetary systems attempt to create an equitable basis for trade and commerce to prevent fraud and theft. Social customs provide the boundaries for polite and comfortable discourse to keep us from embarrassing ourselves and others.

In the early 1900’s the Tuolumne River in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park was dammed to create a water reservoir to serve San Francisco. This is a dam that probably shouldn’t have been built. The dam flooded a valley floor that had many of the same granite formations found in the rest of the park. Environmentalist, John Muir, said, “As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

All that to say, sometimes dams hold back things that shouldn’t be held back. Sometimes our constructed systems do too.

Dams have a life span. Over time, the forces of nature weaken the structure until it can no longer hold back the water. Our social, economic, and political systems also have a life span. Regardless of whether they are holding back things that should be held back or impeding things that should flow freely, they slowly lose structural integrity, and the water starts dripping through the tiny holes, carrying the structure along with it. The most impactful damage frequently goes unnoticed until it is too late. Once you can see water pouring through a hole, sticking your finger in the hole won’t stop the failure.

This is both good and bad news.

The good news is you don’t need dynamite to take out a structure that is holding back things that should flow free, like opportunity and freedom and value. All we must do is poke small holes in it, and over time, the pressure behind the dam will do the rest. It often appears like a catastrophic failure has occurred suddenly, but it is almost always the end of an exponential curve of erosion over time.

The bad news is that it also doesn’t take dynamite to remove a structure that is holding back things that should be contained, like crime and corruption and using people. By the time we realize there is a structural problem, it is often too late to stop the dam from breaking. Again, it often seems like things have suddenly fallen apart, when in fact, the damage has occurred in small increments over time.

Great leaders fight to maintain good structures and participate in poking holes in the bad ones. We can do this through our words and alliances, but the most effective way is through action. What we do every day—how we treat people, the way we respond and react—all have the effect of either strengthening or weakening the structures around us. It is our responsibility to use our influence well and intentionally. If we do this, we can live in communities where people are free and valued and safe. This is what we all want, and it is The Kimray Way.