Everyday leadership:

In 1982, I had the opportunity to work as an archaeological research assistant in Missouri for a couple of months. My younger brother, Jack, was the archaeologist who headed up the crew with whom I worked. I had recently left the coal mines in preparation for beginning my doctorate in interpersonal communication. I was excited about the new experience with archaeology. It was quite a change from coal mining and I would be able to spend some time with my brother to better understand the nature of his work.

The job was to locate archaeological sites in tracts of land that the US Forest Service was preparing to sell. Parcel by parcel, we walked shovel in hand over hilltops, across valleys, and along steep ridge slopes. Depending upon the landform, we periodically speared the shovel into the ground and turned over the loose topsoil. Then, we would break up the overturned dirt with the blade of the shovel looking for any shiny chert (flint) flakes. Chert flakes are by-products of flintknapping, an ancient technology used by prehistoric native Americans to make stone tools. The location of chert flakes identified the location of an archaeological site. In the first week or ten days, many times I would excitedly bring a piece of chert to Jack for inspection. Carefully, he looked at it turning it in his fingers. Then, handing it back to me he explained that it was a naturally fractured rock and was not an artifact made by man. Other times as I excitedly ran to him with another potential artifact, he would look at it for only a second before uttering a “Nope” and tossing it over his back.

Each time, he explained to me why it wasn’t an artifact and how it would look if it were. I was frustrated when I saw other experienced crew members easily and correctly identifying their artifacts. Seldom were they wrong. As a supervisor in the coal mines, I was knowledgeable. I knew how to set up the production cycle of a section and how to maintain the proper air flow to reduce accumulation of methane and dust. In this new environment, I was starting from the very beginning.

Jack spent the time repeatedly to slowly explain to me what distinguished a plain rock from an artifact. After several days, I came to realize how to determine the difference. Chert broken naturally appeared dull and angular. Chert broken by a flintknapper was shinier and exhibited a smoother break with a platform where the impact occurred. What initially seemed like a minute difference became an obvious distinction after careful instruction. However, this uniqueness made all the difference in the world to this job.

Good leaders are patient teachers. Jack’s time was consumed early on with explaining over and over what I should be looking for. In time, however, I became competent enough to contribute to the group. The skills of coal mining did not overlap very much with that of archaeology. However, the confidence that I gained in being successful as a coal miner helped me believe I could master the skills of assisting an archaeologist.

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.