Everyday leadership: Inspiring employees can happen in many ways

In 1982, while working with my brother, Jack, who is an archaeologist, I struggled early on. After repeated instruction, I improved enough to be a valued team member. One day, we were walking a hillside looking for caves or rock shelters. It was late in the day and everyone was anxious to head back to the hotel and supper.

There at the base of the hill we found a small opening in the ground. It didn’t look large enough to have been used as a habitation site of Native Americans. Jack almost passed it by but thought better of it. As he completed some sketches of the finds of the day, the task of crawling into the cave and investigating it was handed over to the crew members. The other four guys spontaneously pointed to me and said, “You have experience in holes. You do it.” They were referring to my nine years of working in the underground coal mines.

I, too, was slightly apprehensive about going into an unknown hole. The hole could be the den of an animal. However, I couldn’t refuse in front of the other guys. I parted some weeds that partially concealed the entrance to this small enclosure and disappeared head first. Once inside, my flashlight revealed the contours of the cave. It was about the size of a small camping tent without the height. The footprints of small animals, probably field mice and raccoons, were prolific in the dust on the floor of the cave.

I hollered to Jack and my peers, “It’s bigger in here than it looks.” A shinny piece of chert caught my attention. As I picked it up, I rubbed it between my fingers. I noticed the familiar shape of the stone and called out, “Got an artifact here.” I proceeded to the entrance and handed it to Jack for confirmation. I went back to search for more significant evidence of habitation. Two or three more chert flakes were located. But without digging up the floor of the cave, no diagnostic tools or pottery could be found.

I crawled out of the cave and gave Jack the additional artifacts. “These will do,” he responded. “We will record this site as Glenn’s Den.” Even though the site was not very significant, I felt proud with the name Jack gave it.

Several leadership behaviors were demonstrated that day. First, Jack made a leadership decision to delegate the task of exploring the cave to the crew. Second, although someone else would have explored the cave had I refused, I was selected due to my past experience as a coal miner. Here, transferability of skills from my coal mining experience helped me be comfortable in this new task. As a leader, Jack also thought about my motivation and encouraged me with naming the cave Glenn’s Den. It was not a big thing but I still remember it 20 years later.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons,” visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.