Everyday leadership: Followers shouldn’t be afraid to lead

Sometimes the toughest challenge shows the true character of the leader and of the followers. Those men and women to whom we point and admirably give the title of leader are often highlighted in a critical situation. Critical situations that seem mundane to some happen often in our daily work life.

In the winter of 1976 while I was a union man in the coal mines, we had a record cold spell. It was so cold the slope froze at the bottom. At this particular mine, all supplies were lowered into the mine on a flat car attached to a steel cable by way of a 1,200-foot 20-degree slope. The temperature plunged and stayed near zero for weeks causing water that had trickled down the slope to freeze over the tracks at the bottom. For several days, no supplies could be lowered into the mine. Finally, the production sections ran out of roof bolts, oil, and other supplies vital to the production cycle. This lack of supplies quickly curtailed the production.

That Friday afternoon shift, the sections were shut down one by one and the men were moved to the bottom of the slope to chip ice off the rails. When the crews arrived at the bottom of the slope, most of them claimed they were sick and went home. In those days, men could claim sickness with no evidence and would be allowed to go home. I stayed to work on the slope. A hundred thousand cubic feet of air per minute was coursing down the slope. The temperature outside was below zero. The wind chill factor at the bottom of the slope must have been near 50 degrees below zero.

I reported to the supervisor of the ice chipping efforts. His job was to observe the men and make sure they kept working. Two other miners had spent half an hour working on the slope before me. A few minutes after I arrived, the other two miners complained of frostbite and were taken to the hospital. I worked the rest of the shift alternating between 15 minutes picking ice and 15 minutes warming myself by a heater.

My eyes stung when I dared to look up the slope. My hands quickly became numb with just a few swings of the pick. Particularly vicious gusts of wind sucked the air out of my lungs and made me gasp. The supervisor begged me to go home. I never was so cold in my life. But I finished the shift.

When I think about the cold that I experienced in the mines, I still shiver. I wasn’t trying to be a hero that day at the bottom of the slope. However, someone had to clear the ice off the tracks or everyone was going to miss work until the weather improved. I was willing to put my energy into being a piece of the solution to the problem. I didn’t make a lot of progress that night but the next day more men chipped away at the ice. Throughout the weekend men risked frostbite and finally by Monday morning the supplies were delivered and the production resumed. Sometimes the leadership and followership roles interchange. Don’t be afraid to lead as the follower when the good of the organization is in question.

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. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.