Everyday leadership: Respect a two-way street for boss, workers

In the coal mines there was a Christmas tradition. Many of the supervisors bought each of their crew members a gallon of whiskey.

Throughout much of my union time I did not drink so I declined the gracious offer. On the first Christmas this event occurred, our boss told each of us to meet him at his car before leaving work. As I approached the car, I observed my foreman lose his grip on a gallon jug he was retrieving from his trunk. It shattered on his bumper splashing on both of us. I suggested that the broken one was mine since I didn’t drink anyway.

I became a supervisor shortly before the contract strike of 1977, which continued throughout the Christmas holiday and into March of 1978. My crew was one of the best in the mine and I wanted to reward them even though they were on strike.

I thought about buying them the traditional whiskey and delivering it to their houses. It seemed to me, given the strike and no income, each of the miners and their families would prefer some other gift. I debated with myself and with my father’s suggestion settled upon frozen turkeys. I went to Riesbecks, the local grocery store, and bought the largest 12 frozen turkeys. I knew where some of the men lived and called for directions to the others.

One cold, slick Saturday a week prior to Christmas, I hit the road starting at mid-day and one by one visited all of the houses of my crew members. I had a good time at every house. The men and I got to see one another in a different light. No one told me to go through these steps to deliver Christmas presents. I wanted to make this gesture to show the men that I appreciated their efforts. They had been a good crew working together, often achieving top production for a particular day. We had conflicts occasionally, as is often the case in such a physically and emotionally difficult job. I wasn’t thinking of leadership as I planned and carried out my Christmas mission. I just wanted to reach out to the men in an appreciative way.

Leaders need to find creative ways to connect with their followers. People are a lot more than simplistic stereotypes of boss or union member. The more we keep that fact in mind, the less we can treat others unfairly or disrespectfully. Of course, respect must go both ways. My crew members returned the respect to me for the energy and effort I put into delivering the turkeys. Our relationship improved once they returned to work. Remember, however, respect is an on-going relationship. A one-time act, regardless of how well intentioned, doesn’t command respect indefinitely.

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.