When in doubt, good leaders follow the rules

My most emotional and difficult job in the underground coal mining industry was as track foreman. I dreaded my arrival at work each day to deal the anger of my crew. It was a very negative relationship from the very beginning for reasons beyond my control.

One day, my crew was working at the end of a mile-long stretch of wall track. Halfway down the track a welder who worked for me was on a jeep replacing broken bond wires. As track foreman, I doubled as a fireboss and was required to check gas at the end of the track before the end of the shift. I also had to check the progress of my crew with their track construction job. In order to do so, the welder and I would have to switch out jeeps. This was a cumbersome 15-minute operation.

Instead, my welder, Dave, urged me to allow him to drive me up to the section. I agreed but told him that he would have to unhook the welding equipment and cap the acetylene and oxygen tanks for safety’s sake. He suggested that if he drove slowly, there would be no problems. I thought he was right but I also believed that the other track crew members would file a grievance against me if they observed this infraction as they surely would. Repeatedly, I insisted we switch out the track vehicles and Dave argued his case. Finally, Dave assured me that he would make sure his peers would cause me no problems.

Eventually, I gave in to save time, a very stupid lapse of judgment on my part. As we reached the end of the track, another track crew member spotted the uncapped tank and began gleefully prancing around and singing songs of my demise. I didn’t respond, hoping Dave could take care of it, and went about my duties. The next day, the mine superintendent expressed his displeasure in me and I was moved to afternoon shift to supervise a production crew. This was actually a much more pleasant responsibility but was also a black mark on my record.

For various reasons, all leaders make mistakes. Each mistake seems to be the right decision at the time or at least one that will not result in negative outcomes. Given my poor relationship with this crew, this decision was one of my worst as a supervisor. The shift was getting short and I felt pressured. I also wanted to improve my relationship with Dave, who showed me the most respect of any crew member. Regardless of my rationalization, it was the wrong short cut to take. This decision was one that afterward I said, I should have known better. When your gut tells you one thing and your head another, good leaders follow the rules.

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.