The Underground Railroad and Leading from Our Strengths

Jeremy Kingsley, President, OneLife Leadership

The Underground Railroad and Leading from Our Strengths

The Underground Railroad is a remarkable chapter in American history. It assisted thousands of enslaved people-maybe as many as 100,000-in escaping to freedom under conditions of grave danger. And it did it with no formal leadership, structure, or staff.

As we commemorate Black History Month, it's an especially apt time to look at some of what the Underground Railroad can teach us about bringing people together to accomplish great things.

Structure follows function. We tend to think of organizational structure as something we design from the top down, but sometimes it's best to let that element grow out of the mission and the requirements of the job at hand. The Underground Railroad grew organically as a network of smaller efforts-which turned out to be by far the most effective and safe way to carry out its high-risk work. Because most people knew only a limited part of the whole, any problems were unlikely to disrupt the entire operation.

Make communication work. Communication is key to the success of any organization, and that was certainly true of the Underground Railroad. Language was accessible to people at all levels of literacy, and heavily coded in terms that were already in common use. This sometimes took the form of religious language, like Harriet Tubman's designation as "Moses," and sometimes business language-for example, a note about the delivery of a certain number of large and small hams (i.e., adult and child escapees) to a city. Messages may have also being embedded in objects like quilts and song lyrics.

Diversity is strength. Diversity is a term that we hear a lot about these days, so much that it's tempting to treat it as something we're required to do, or even dismiss it as "political correctness." But it's a fact that the more skill sets and points of view you can bring to your organization, the stronger its work will be.  The Underground Railroad was made up of white and free black abolitionists, former slaves, freethinkers, churches of various denominations, and people from all walks of life. These individuals and groups weren't necessarily natural allies, or even trusting of one another-but the success of their work required such a wide range of skills and knowledge that each of them brought something critical to the effort.

A meaningful mission inspires commitment. Those who served on the Underground Railroad were willing to put everything on the line: home, profession, freedom, safety-for some, their lives. And they did it for one reason: working against slavery had become for them a moral imperative. When your mission is aligned with the values of the people working for and with you, that work becomes a passion.

Most of us aren't in a position to make history on the scale of the Underground Railroad. But the elements that fed that incredible story-unity, an inclusive organization, commitment, and a mission that inspires-are available to all of us.


About the Author

Jeremy Kingsley is a professional speaker, best-selling author and the President of OneLife Leadership. He is the author of four books, his latest is titled: Inspired People Produce Results (McGraw Hill 2013).