I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad

What a Railroad Can Teach You About Leadership

Leadership Lessons from the Railroad

Effective leadership is fashioned through activities, which chisel away excess material revealing the masterpiece within. One summer I learned a lot about leadership working with troubled and troubling teens constructing a rail system for a local historical society in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. What I learned about leadership resulted from specific steps executed in the construction of the track. The project revealed three distinct lessons regarding leadership. The result of the investment made in the project and the people was an increased capacity to exercise effective leadership skills.

This article will detail the first in a series of three lessons learned during the construction of a small-scale, full-sized rail system for a local historical society. In subsequent installments, the second and third lessons will be shared. Each lesson stands alone; however, the three lessons combine to produce a compound effect. Personal application of each lesson is suggested to aid the reader in maximizing the transferability of the applied concept.

Lesson #1: To shape individual leadership skills requires varying amounts of tension.

The first observation on arrival to the site was that all of the rails to be used in the project were straight pieces of steel. Additionally, no new materials were available for construction. All of the rails and rail ties were taken from projects where tracks were removed to reduce environmental and occupational hazards. Somehow, I had convinced myself that a variety of rails in differing shapes would be required; however, all I saw was a stack of used, straight rails. I wondered to myself how the project would be possible.

It did not take long to learn straight rails would fit our every need for laying an oval track. Using rail spikes, a wench, and a pick-up truck, we began to pull the straight rails in small enough increments to ensure that the track stayed on-design and provided the longest possible ride for the tourists. As we got the surprisingly flexible rail into position, spikes were driven into the rail ties to secure the shape of the track with each foot we moved forward. We never cut the rail. Neither were we required to make other adjustments to the rails to ensure the track came together at the starting point. Vision of the whole project required faith and confidence in the integrity of the rail enthusiasts who designed the project. So, the project began on a straight strait stretch and matched-up perfectly when we came back to the starting point.

Leadership reflects similar characteristics. The tension put into the rails allowed the crew to shape them and create the path designed for the steam engine to navigate. In individuals and organizations, leadership skills must adapt to challenges created by various circumstances. Some of the challenges stretch the organization and leader in directions that take stamina to survive. Some of the challenges put tension on the organization and leader to hold things in place so productivity is achieved without becoming derailed.  Tension and challenges produce change and bring shape to the organization. If the process is completed so that there is a firm foundation, the organization experiences years of productive outcomes and growth.

The ability to incorporate and guide tension in the business plan is vital to creating a track to guide best practice. Building an oval track from strait pieces of steel rail taught me the importance of using tension to one’s advantage in shaping the course of a business plan. Maintaining the right amount of tension in the appropriate direction determines what course businesses follow in daily practice. In the next installment of this series, the importance of constant evaluation and review is compared to the need for two tracks to be kept parallel and equally spaced to ensure the locomotive and passenger cars remain on the track from point-to-point in a rail system.

Please sure to check back in a few days for the next leadership lesson from that summer working on the railroad.


Special Guest Post by David Ruhman Bio PhotoDavid Ruhman – Please see his short bio below.  Reach out to him via email and check out his blog via the links below in his Author Bio.  And watch for more posts from Dave in the coming days.

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Passion for deep integration of academic knowledge and technical skill training through real-world, contextualized learning; delivered in dynamic, relevant, 21st-century coaching process for evaluation and needs assessment. Connecting individuals, departments and organizations with successful growth and improvement planning through leadership development and policy analysis. Engaging and re-engaging individuals, departments and organizations in the pursuit of a life-long commitment to intellectual, social and emotional growth to achieve optimal professional development.

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