During my coal mining career, there were times when I followed the crowd and times I did not. In the beginning, I watched the other miners to determine how they interacted and to learn the social mores of the various groups with whom I worked.
I quickly learned that the ability to give and receive humor was important. People who showed discomfort with being the object of humor earned the spotlight and more jokes at their expense. Never let them see you sweat is a lesson most coal miners knew. I became comfortable with swinging back an appropriate good-natured response when I was the object. The response couldn't be too mean-spirited or too timid.
When it came to wildcat strikes (walkouts usually due to perceived contractual infractions), I often found myself in opposition to the majority. My response was to go through the grievance process before initiating a work stoppage.
I realized I was in my first wildcat strike when the shower room emptied prior to an afternoon shift. The next day, the miners working on my shift returned for a union meeting to discuss the strike. I didn't understand the purpose of the strike so when someone suggested a vote, I had my mind made up. One man hollered, "Everyone who wants to go to work over there and those who want to strike over here." I hesitated a minute and then followed another miner to the no-strike side. I soon found out mine was the minority view (only five miners) and that all the other miners saw me as a trader. Luckily, no violence occurred and the issue was quickly settled.
A couple of years later, a miner did not get a half hour of overtime he felt was due and out they went. We missed a week's work and were beginning our second week out when our daily shift meeting was held. I had surveyed several other miners I knew and felt confident most of the miners wanted to go back to work. I stood on a bench, which meant I wanted the floor. I reviewed what I knew of the history of the work stoppage and suggested we go back to work and initiate a grievance. Then, I said I couldn't lose fifty dollars a day with no grievance filed and that I was going to work. I started dressing while watching from the corner of my eye as six other miners joined me. Twenty others maintained their strike position. I lost a tire and a mirror from my car while I was underground but half the next shift and all of the following shift returned to work ending the wildcat strike.
There are times when people need to go along to get along and times when people need to take a stand. If you always go along, you may be reinforcing inefficient or damaging practices. If you are always obstinate to the group's wishes, you may limit your ability to effect change when it is important. I didn't always make the right decision as a union man or as a supervisor, but I did try to do what I thought was right. I believe good leaders have to assess their actions with both their heads and hearts. Leaders may be safe in the present by not taking a stand. However, they may create more confusion and controversy in 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.