Management Lessons from the Underground Railroad

So you think you have management headaches.  Imagine trying to orchestrate the transfer of slaves to freedom prior to the Civil War.  Men, women, and children, most of who were frightened out of their mind, and any unnecessary move or sound threatened to blow the entire operation.  And imagine coordinating this effort while you had a large bounty on our head, in excess of one million in today’s dollars.

Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad had a perfect record.  Nineteen times she led slaves across dangerous territory, freeing more than 300 of them in the process, and each time she succeeded due to fantastic management skills.

For example, she sometimes had to split up her team to make them harder to find.  As reported in this month’s Mental Floss magazine, this was especially challenging given that most of the slaves were unfamiliar with areas outside of the plantation.  And they had to travel mostly at night.  However, like any good manager, Tubman provided easy-to-follow instructions that allowed her team to find the next rendezvous point.

Even though she was successful, Tubman was careful not to get in over her head.  She obviously had thousands of slaves hoping to gain their freedom, but she kept her groups small: 12 – 15 at the most.  This helped Tubman manage the operation effectively given her resources.

Finally, Tubman made sure everyone knew she was in charge.  As you might image, slaves were often frightened of what might happen to them if they were caught, and some considered turning back.  But turning back would have threatened not only their lives, but the entire Underground Railroad.  Tubman would often put a stop to this by showing her gun and offering a choice to frightened slave, “You’ll be free or die a slave.”  While firearms are not the recommended tools for managers today, we still have to step up at times like Tubman did and have tough conversations with our teams.

Harriet Tubman helped a tremendous number of people with her unselfish actions.  And she succeeded despite immense odds because she was a fantastic manager.  We can all learn a lot from her actions.

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