Everyday Leadership: When things go bad, just stay calm

One day when I was a supervisor in the coal mine, a situation with a miner named Joe occurred testing my will. Joe was a huge, towering man of 6 feet 5 inches, weighing over 300 pounds. He was assigned to my crew to fill in for an absent roof bolter.

The beginning of this day’s work was pleasant enough. But late in the day, the disposition changed as it sometimes did in the mine. The production requirements of the day necessitated asking Joe to perform a routine but dangerous and distasteful task for the second time in a row. The task, called “posting a cut,” involved measuring, cutting, and wedging nine to twelve posts under the top of a newly mined area prior to the installation of permanent supports or roof bolts. Usually, the job was rotated between the two roof bolters and their helpers. This day the other roof bolter and his helper were installing bolts in a place that if the job was not completed the production would come to a standstill.

Joe became irritated with being asked twice to post cuts and told me so in no uncertain terms. When his protests were not successful he resorted to the next level of expression. Grabbing a piece of drill steel from the chuck of his bolter, he swung the four-foot piece of pipe in my direction. My quick reaction time saved me. I jumped just as the piece of drill steel hit the ground in front of me. It bounced under my feet and harmlessly to the side.

At this point, Joe realized the error of his emotion. Without a word, he got up and walked in the direction of the task I had assigned him. Concerned with getting the job done and unsure of his intent, I followed closely upon his heels. The task was time sensitive because if the cut was not posted quickly, it could fall and create a more dangerous situation for everyone. We took a few more steps and Joe swung on his heels to face me squarely. Looking down at me he screamed, “What the hell do you want?”

I asked him, “Are you going to post the cut.”

“Yeah, I’ll post it. Get out of my face,” Joe responded.

I accepted his commitment to fulfill my orders, and commenced to fireboss the belt line (inspect for fire hazards), a responsibility I was required to perform once a day. Joe did post the cut as requested. A few days later he apologized for the outburst and the issue was forgotten by us both.

As you can imagine, this situation was potentially explosive. To be honest, I was scared. The only thing I could think of to do was to hold my ground and control my emotions. I was prepared for the situation to go in several different directions. Luckily, Joe was also scared with his own actions and chose to do the right thing.

Leadership is often uncertain. When you work with new people, you have to be respectful and clear about your directions. It is also important to link your assignments to the business needs. When things turn bad, the most critical thing for a leader to do is to breathe and keep his/her emotions in check. When emotions ran high, I learned to get calmer and more deliberate about my communication. Achieving this behavior was one of my most valuable lessons.

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.

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