Leaders who show respect ahead of those who use force

During the three years I worked at the Meigs Number Two coal mine (1979-1982), I saw very few strikes. Across the country, wildcat strikes became much less frequent after the 1978 contract between the United Mine Workers of America and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association. The union felt threatened by the low sulfur requirements of the 1977 Clean Air Act.

One notable strike occurred on a mine superintendent’s first day of work. Someone called a bomb threat into the mine, an event that was not uncommon. Normally, when the men were informed of a bomb threat, they were given a choice to work or go home after a quick survey of the mine by supervisors. Most miners ignored the threat and went to work, figuring it to be the actions of a crank.

On this particular day, however, the new superintendent tried to demonstrate his power and control. I watched as he climbed onto a bench, gathered the miners around him, and introduced himself with a stern, challenging look. He continued by proclaiming that any miner who did not go to work that day would be given an unexcused absence on his record.

The miners, who were prepared to go to work suddenly changed their minds, turned around, and went home. The next day, they returned to work. Nothing more was said of the event by either side. Nor, did any union miner have an unexcused absence placed in his records. The union’s show of force was merely a counter demonstration of resolve and power. The message was understood by both sides.

Few other strikes occurred at this mine while I worked there. Part of the reason this mine had few strikes was that it had a multi-million dollar investment in longwall equipment. Therefore, the company was not in the habit of opposing or confronting the union for fear of costly strikes.

This superintendent was a young man assuming his first site leadership position. He reminded me of the story about the guy who went to prison for the first time. He decided to find the biggest, meanest guy in the yard and hit him as hard as he could. His thinking was if you are tough enough to take that action and get away with it, everyone will leave you alone or do what you say.

Unfortunately, in real life, brut force seldom works, especially if the person or group being bullied also has power and the willingness to use it. This superintendent got off on the wrong foot the first day. I believe leaders who show respect get more of what they want than those who use threats.

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, www.raycomlearning.com or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.