Pappy McKelvey taught me how to operate a roof bolting machine in the coal mine. It was a job I desired because it had the top pay rate. The job, which entailed drilling a hole 8-feet in depth in the mine top and installing a roof bolt, was challenging and risky. In the 1970s, it was one of the most dangerous jobs in underground coal mining. Many of the injuries and fatalities involved roof bolters.
Pappy was a spry gentleman in his mid-50s. When he laughed, his shoulders bounced accompanied by a breathy hee, hee, hee. He had kind of a squeaky voice like Walter Brennan on the television show, the Real McCoys of the 1950s. When Pappy walked, he dragged his right leg a little when he was tired. Pappy had been a roof bolter for years. He told stories of, as a young man, helping retrieve bodies from the Powhatan Point, Ohio, mine disaster of July 5, 1944, where 66 men died. My ears were always wide open to learn from Pappy's stories. Pappy didn't have much to say, unless you broached the subject of fishing. When he did, however, he commanded center stage.
I learned a lot about how to stay alive from Pappy. I was confident of Pappy's skills on a roof bolting machine. I had watched him in awe with wide eyes. Pappy's hand moved quickly for a man of his age. Eventually, in response to one of my questions, Pappy proclaimed, "Ya gotsta haf a little bit a rabbit in ya to be a roof bota." At the time I didn't understand but two days later his meaning was demonstrated.
While drilling the top in a place where a couple of layers of stone had fallen, his exposed drill steel split sending shards of steel and four-foot pieces of pipe flying in all directions. Shocked, I froze for a second not knowing what to do. Regaining my focus, I started moving toward the rear of the machine to shut off the power. Pappy dodged the steel and quick as a flash vaulted over me and turned off the power. With perspiration on his forehead, he turned to me with a frown and said, "Ya see, ya gotsta haf a little bit a rabbit in ya to be a roof bota." When it was important for safety, Pappy told me what I needed to know and he told me the truth.
A leader doesn't have to be the most talkative guy. He has to care about the people he leads and teach them all that he knows that would help them.
On the other hand, I knew a mine electrician who refused to teach anyone anything. He was very closed with his communication. He was afraid that if he taught others what he knew or how to perform his work, the company wouldn't need him as much. When he retired, many of the systems he installed had to be replaced because no one understood his methods or logic. Leaders who withhold communication and information hurt their organizations and followers in the present and the future.
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.