Leaders must put ego aside, think about the team instead

For about a century, one of the indications of authority in the coal mine in Ohio was the “buglight.” The proper name of the instrument is the Koehler flame safety lantern. This lantern replaced the canary as the primary tool for detecting deficiency of oxygen in the 1890s. Prior to 1970, buglights were the approved devices to detect methane accumulations and oxygen deficiency. After 2000, more sophisticated instrumentation replaced the buglight altogether.

In Ohio mines, only the supervisors, other mine management representatives, and certified union firebosses carried this lantern. A brass tag with the supervisor’s name and check number was attached to each lantern. Ohio state law required an active production section to have at least one lantern. The lantern had to be disassembled, cleaned, and filled with fluid before every shift. You could see a foreman a mile off with this light on his hip. The lamp looked like a firefly from a distance. Hence the name buglight.

The flame safety lantern was designed to contain a methane ignition inside the lamp. A pair of overlapping wire gauzes capped the flame and were enclosed by a glass globe. As an explosion passed through the gauzes, it cooled before it could ignite the mine atmosphere. We were pretty complacent about the lamp’s dangers because of this fact. One day, a supervisor noticed a leaking acetylene tank improperly tied at the side of the track and proceeded to close the valve and secure it properly. The tank nozzle was spraying acetylene directly onto the lit flame of the safety lantern on the supervisor’s belt. The result was an explosion that burned the foreman severely enough to send him to the hospital. It seems that the explosion range of acetylene is lower than methane for which the lantern was designed.

A sense of authority came over me when I became a foreman and first carried the buglight. I flashed back to when I was 6 years old and donned my toy six-shooter. I have to admit that my head swelled noticeably the first few days I carried this additional pound hooked onto my belt. Within a week, my crew convinced me that my ego was out of proportion with the reality of my power and position. I still keep a lantern in my office to remind me of the many experiences that I had as a miner and a supervisor.

Some leaders get a big head when they earn their first leadership position. I think it is pretty natural. Among this group of leaders, a subset of them never get over their own egos.

When the ego is primary, the respect followers have for the leader usually erodes over time. Good leaders focus on the well-being of the team and on improving performance of the team members. When focus is on these variables, respect for the leaders grows with success.

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.