Good leaders focus on the good of the team

One of the indications of authority for about a century 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 cannery as the primary tool for detecting deficiency of oxygen in the 1890s. Around 1970, buglights were the approved device to detect methane accumulation and oxygen deficiency. With improved detectors, the buglight was retired completely in 1990.

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 is attached to each lantern. Ohio state law required an active production section to have at least one lantern. The lantern has to be disassembled, cleaned, and filled with fluid before every shift. You can see a foreman a mile off with this light on his hip. The lamp looks like a firefly from a distance. Hence the name buglight.

The flame safety lantern is 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 its supposed safety.

One day a supervisor noticed that 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 severely burned the foreman. Later, we learned that the explosion range of acetylene was lower than that of 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 felt like when I was 7 years old and put on my toy six-shooter. I have to admit that my head swelled noticeably the first few days I carried this additional pound hooked on my miner’s 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 that this feeling is 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. Effective leaders focus on the good 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, or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.