Leaders and followers are truly in it together

When I was a supervisor in the coal mine in 1979, I had one of my most difficult motivating tasks. The mine, Y&O Coal Company, where I worked as a production foreman, had since the mine’s inception been a captive mine. A captive mine is one whose coal is consumed by one customer. Long term contracts had linked Cleveland Electric Illuminating (CEI) and Y&O Coal Company for over 10 years. However, the Clean Air Act of 1977 reduced the amount of sulfur that power plants could emit. Therefore, CEI chose to buy Western coal rather than install sulfur scrubbers in their smoke stacks to allow the burning of Southeastern Ohio’s high sulfur coal.

All of these events were outside the control of my crew and me but we were impacted in a very significant way. Suddenly, our coal was being sold on the open market. The cost per man of producing coal became an issue when in the past little was said about it.

The company’s marketing department shifted its focus from dealing with one customer to dealing with dozens of potential customers, an obviously much more difficult task. Soon, the company made a decision to layoff almost half the union workforce and nine foremen. As our fortunes continued to decline, periodically, we found ourselves with no coal contracts and more layoffs. Coal contracts became synonymous with coal cars. As soon as we filled the coal cars that represented a contract, the union was laid off.

My crew and others at the mine began to believe that it was most advantageous to slow down the mining process. They would say, “Why should we work so hard when the faster we mine the coal, the quicker we will be laid off.” Their logic certainly made sense on the surface. I had to help my crew understand that the most security possible for all of us would result from mining the coal as quickly as possible. The faster we mined the coal, the lower the price per ton of coal. The lower the price of coal per ton, the more contracts we could have a chance of winning. It seemed like backward logic to the men but the more we talked about it, the more sense it made. Everybody pitched in and the production rose dramatically.

Today, the work environment and customer demands are more complex than ever. Globalization, although disdained by some, is probably going to be the nature of business in the future. Leaders need to understand the complexity of their business and spend time explaining it to employees at all levels. Leaders and followers are truly in it together in all organizations. They should communicate in ways that reflect the reality of their common purpose. Keeping secrets or only handing out information on a need-to-know basis no longer make sense in today’s organizations.

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 Website, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.