When leaders do the right thing they expect the company to hold up its end

At times, work in the coal mine was difficult and emotional. One such set of events occurred when I was a track construction foreman. One crew member, Earnest, was on disability with a work-related accident. He had broken his neck from hitting his head on the mine top while driving a large track motor.

I first heard of Earnest on a Monday morning. At the bottom of the elevator, my boss stopped me and told me about Earnest, his history, and what to expect. I was also told to try and get along with him.

As I walked into the track staging area, Earnest said in a loud voice, “So that’s what the jerk looks like.” I ignored the comment and introduced myself to him and extended my hand. He uttered a curse in an extremely disdainfully tone. I was puzzled by such anger from a total stranger.

Within a couple of days after repeated incidents of anger and insubordination, I decided to take him aside for a talk. At first, he tried to refuse the conversation completely. I tried to soften the situation, “Earnest, we both are down here trying to make a living for our families. I can see you don’t like me and you don’t have to like me. I just want to know how we can work together without such bitterness.”

His only response was filled with profanity and his anger continued unabated. I was saddened but my efforts failed.

I reached out to him several more times in attempts to create a positive working relationship and get our job done. Each time he rebuffed me. Several weeks went by and after much thought and many discussions with my boss, the situation came to a head.

The entire crew was on an important job of laying track for a production section that was in danger of being shut down due to insufficient track. As usual, Earnest was continually inciting different members of my crew to resist my directions. He disobeyed several direct orders concerning laying track. Finally, I informed him he was suspended subject to discharge and took him outside. It was the only time I ever had to take this drastic action. The next day, the management and union officials met with Earnest and me to discuss the situation. The mine foreman assured me that my dismissal action would stand.

As the week progressed, union officials filed charges against three other foremen who were observed by union men breaking the law regarding the proper way to set explosives. The shift foreman traded Earnest’s job for the jobs of the three foremen and all charges were dropped on Earnest and the three foremen. I had Earnest back on my crew the next day more hostile than ever.

This situation was the most difficult one of my work life. People called and threatened my wife when I was on midnight shift. While underground, I knew I was at constant risk. The only choice I had was to set clear expectations, give honest feedback, and hold Earnest and the other crew members accountable.

Unfortunately, although I followed the appropriate steps for corrective action, the mine foreman chose to abandon the process for political objectives. In reality, we have little control over our supervisors or subordinates. Leaders do the right thing and expect the company to hold up its end.

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.