Everyday leadership: Teach the next generation

I watched my younger brother, Jack, unfold a larger piece of plastic, set a stool in the middle and then retrieve a piece of flint large enough to cover his hand. We were in the Smoky Mountains in May of 1993 and Jack was scheduled to give a demonstration of flint knapping, the art of making flint tools, including arrowheads, to a group of archaeology students.

Jack is an archaeologist at Missouri State University. For his masters thesis he learned in 1979 how to make artifacts. He, then, used them to butcher animals and scrape their hides to better understand their wear and breakage patterns. Jack found or made his own flint knapping tools. Hammer stones were retrieved from a river bed, deer antlers were found in the woods in the fall, and a leather protector for his hands were made out of old leather shoes.

As Jack prepared for his demonstration, the students started gathering around asking him questions. We were at a small campsite near an excavation site at which the students were working. Nearby on two sides the mountains rose sharply covered with the rich green of ancient trees of all species.

The skills of making arrowheads and other projectile points died out almost a 100 years ago. When Jack started making flint tools 25 years ago, not many people were actively engaged in the skill.

Jack hit the hand-sized piece of flint and a sizable flake flew onto the plastic sheet. He picked it up and examined it turning it repeatedly in his glove-covered hand. “Too thin,” he explained to the group. He aimed and once again the hammer stone hit the flint core. This time he achieved the desired result and he beamed as he picked up the flake and showed it to the group. He continued working the stone, blow by blow. The deer antler was used to more delicately flake the sharp edges. In about 30 minutes, we all admired the finished product.

Hundreds and thousands of years ago, a man would teach his sons the skill that was handed down to him from his father and through the generations as far anyone could remember. It seems odd that some of the most elegantly crafted tools were made about 10,000 years ago in North America. Whereas, some of the less elegantly crafted tools were made by more recent toolmakers.

Sometimes skills erode over time as they are passed from person to person. Leaders need to realize that it is important to document the skills of their employees and continually try to enable employees to improve upon their processes. I have seen numerous cases in organizations where a group of long time employees retired at once. Hundreds of years of experience were immediately lost. Leaders should realize that now is the time to create processes to value your experienced employees by involving them to develop materials to teach the next generation. It takes time and money to write new employee training materials or to hire new employees before the experienced ones retire. However, it is less expensive than trying to get new employees up to speed after the experienced ones have retired and left the scene.

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. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.