Good leaders create systems where secrets are unnecessary

When I worked in the coal mines, strikes frequently shortened my paychecks. I did my best to make up the difference by working a lot of overtime. Sometimes, the strikes resulted from roving pickets. Pickets are men who stand at the mine’s entrance to stop union men from going to work. Roving pickets came from other mines that were having problems. They picketed our mine to put pressure on the whole mining system. An unwritten rule was that no union miner crossed a picket line regardless of the reason or who the pickets were. I obeyed the rule as did all the other miners.

In 1976, our mine was pulled out for almost a week with pickets showing up around midnight and staying until the dayshift crew arrived. Each morning, I drove to the mine ready to work. If I saw pickets at the mine’s entrance, I went by, turned around, and headed back home.

Finally, I decided to talk to the picketers. As I pulled up to the mine entrance, about 20 miners who looked like they had been drinking all night were standing in the road. I recognized one or two of them from our mine. Most of them, however, I had never seen before. In hindsight, I should have pulled off along the side of the road and walked toward the men.

The mob quickly surrounded my small Fiat. One miner addressed me as the rest of the crew started rocking my car. I rolled down my window and the leader of the group stuck a pistol nearly into the window of my car. Before I could ask him how long he thought they would be out, he screamed, “Get the …. out of here and don’t come back till we’ve gone back to work.” I immediately put the car in reverse and proceeded in the opposite direction. A couple of the men rocking my car were rolled in the gravel with my retreat. The next day, a foreman had his car’s rear window shattered by a shotgun blast from the same mob.

Adherence to roving pickets was one of those unwritten rules in the mining industry during the 1970s. As a young man and a miner with only three years of experience, the whole process seemed chaotic and confusing. Other young miners had fathers or uncles to help them understand behaviors that were acceptable or unacceptable. There were no coal miners in my family, so I had to seek this information or learn by trial and error. When important information must be learned through the grapevine or by luck, people often fail to do what is expected of them.

Good leaders create systems where secrets are unnecessary. The information required to get the job done is out in the open and regularly discussed. This story describes an extreme case of keeping needed information hidden. However, if you look in your organizations, you may find other informational needs that puzzle people. It is only fair to all involved to make sure the desired behaviors are clear. It is your responsibility as a leader.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of “The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success,” visit his Web site, or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.