Lessons on Leadership with Harriet Tubman

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Harriet Tubman was a champion of the Underground Railroad. As a “conductor” on the Railroad, she led roughly 13 trips to rescue family and friends. Born into slavery in Maryland in the 1820’s, Harriet endured more than twenty years as a slave. In 1849 she decided to attempt an escape, and took off with two of her brothers, but on the way the boys got cold feet and returned to the plantation. Determined to make it to freedom, Harriet continued on and eventually arrived in the free state of Pennsylvania.

Finally free after years of slavery, Harriet had a difficult choice to make: stay free and start a new life, or risk losing it all by going back to save her family and friends. Harriet bravely chose the latter.

“…there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland, because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.” -Harriet Tubman

The Fugitive Slave Law—which passed a year after Harriet escaped—made rescuing the people she loved in Maryland a little more difficult. The new law made freedom harder to find because it required law enforcement in the northern states to capture and return escaped slaves to the south. Harriet wasn’t about to let the law stop her, she decided to extend the escape route all the way up to Canada, where the law didn’t apply.

A Firm Yet Loving Leader
Harriet Tubman lacked any kind of formal education. She couldn’t write, and she wasn’t the most eloquent speaker- but when it came to leadership and ingenuity, Harriet was one of the best in the business.

Harriet knew what needed to be done and executed with precision even if it meant pulling a gun on her own people.

Harriet-Tubman_640x200“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” -Harriet Tubman 

Harriet carried a pistol on all her trips. The pistol served as protection, but it was also used it to motivate the slaves. On the long, uncertain journey from Maryland to Canada, some of the escaped slaves would become distraught. On the Underground Railroad they barely slept, and they never knew whom they could trust or when their next warm meal would be. If the uncertainty became too much and a slave threatened to turn back, Harriet was forced to pull out the gun and keep them going.

If someone left the group, they would certainly be coerced to give away the people and the safe houses that supported the Underground Railroad. A defector could crumble the whole operation and put many good people into dangerous situations. Harriet was not going to let that happen.

On the other hand, Harriet also understood the importance of being a source of inspiration to the slaves she was guiding. She would tell stories to make them laugh or to remind them of their past difficulties as a slave to keep them focused on finding freedom. She knew the importance of giving the people hope. Even when something didn’t seem right or when she was navigating through unknown territory, Harriet always made an effort to hide her fear or concern. She would never have saved as many people as she did had she not calmed her fears and led with confidence.

A Well-Oiled Machine
Harriet Tubman concocted perfectly orchestrated escape plans. She would mimic bird sounds or sing songs at varying tempos to let slaves know if it was safe to escape out of their cabins at night. She eventually learned that Saturday night was prime time to lead escapes because print shops were not open on Sundays. That meant that even though slave owners knew the slaves had escaped, they couldn’t get the word out until Monday when the reward posters could be printed and distributed.

Harriet was a brilliant leader who was the perfect combination of firmness and love. Though uneducated, her dedication to freeing her friends and family forced her to acquire a specific and valuable set of skills. Ultimately those skills, combined with her leadership qualities, brought about the freedom of roughly 70 slaves via the Underground Railroad. In addition to saving slaves, when the Civil War broke out, Harriet jumped right in as a spy for the Union army. One of her greatest achievements in the war was aiding in the rescue of 700 slaves from South Carolina. Harriet dedicated her life to helping people, and fought to save others until the day she died.

We can all take a page from Harriet Tubman’s book. Whether we want to be a better, more loving friend and family member or a more effective leader, Harriet’s story is one worth digging into a little bit deeper to discover a great example of dedication, leadership, and success.

What are your thoughts on leadership style? What works best for you? Leave a comment below and tell us! You can find Braden on Twitter.

Written by Braden Thompson