Looking out my hotel window here in Sao Paulo, Brazil two images of modernity compete for my attention – the graceful Olivera bridge completed in 2008 and the constant stream of helicopters buzzing over the gridlocked streets below. The two images are set against a backdrop of skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, like trees in a densely packed forest. Which image best captures spanning boundaries in a rising Brazil?
I’m here to present Boundary Spanning Leadership at the LATAM CEO Forum, attended by nearly 40 Directors and CEO’s of some of South Americas largest businesses. The work and lives of these executives are inextricably linked to the two images out my window – the bridge just 200 yards away and the helicopters overhead.
The Olivera bridge crosses the Pinheiros River, and at over 450 feet in height, is an impressive site. The similarities between this bridge and the bridge on the cover of our book are unmistakable – see the photo taken from my hotel window. This bridge, like all others, is a universal symbol for connection, bringing together, and linking two sides. “We are proud of this bridge as the new symbol for Brazil,” explained one of the CEO’s I spoke with. “It represents how our country is the link between South America and the world.” Indeed, this bridge is always open for business, fully inclusive and democratic, and accessible to anyone of any origin of Sao Paulo’s 17 million inhabitants who seek to get from one side to the other.
But this symbol sits in stark contrast to the helicopters overhead. Sao Paulo now has the largest privately held fleet of helicopters in the world. They are like airborne limousines for the cities’ elite, especially businesspersons. As you can read in this NYT article, “Rich Brazilians Rise Above Rush-Hour Jams” these executives fly over the poverty, din, crime and oppressive gridlock below whisking to their office, a meeting, or even Sunday mass. The article reports that the most affordable, best-selling helicopter in Brazil, the Robinson R44, costs about $380,000, somewhere in the range of 90 times the average annual income of a Sao Paulo resident. Another popular model, the Bell 407, goes for around $1.5 million. I imagine that at least one of the CEO’s here at the Forum will be heading home tonight by a Robinson, if not a Bell.
Two forms of transportation infrastructure, two modes of traversing the obstacles below, two competing images for the largest city in the southern hemsiphere. In the years ahead, will the metaphor of the bridge best capture the spirit of Sau Paulo’s ethnic diversity, warmth of character, and global reach? Or will it be the helicopter, representing deep social class divisions and individualism? The answer lies, at least in part, to the extent that the executives assembled here embrace the belief that their fate and the fate of their millions of Sau Paulo neighbors are one and the same.