Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Harriet Tubman is my Manager Role Model

I've spent some days thinking about the Underground Railroad, and the ways in which we think about management are never far from my mind. How would our work lives change if we had different role models?

I've noticed that many of the role model metaphors for managers often return to sports. That metaphor doesn't work for me. I'm a long distance runner, not a team sports person. I'm a little afraid of how that translates into a management model. Afraid yet tempted. We all go out and log our miles, and if you're experiencing difficulty, you'll tell me, and we'll brainstorm. Some days, we'll run together, but most days, we'll run alone.

It's a management model that works for me as a worker, but I can see how many workers would feel abandoned.

I've been thinking about Harriet Tubman and her approach to management: "Wake up. We're going for freedom, and we're going tonight. I've been there, and I can get you there. But we have to leave right now."

I've noticed that many of the colleagues that I've had through the years are not great at imagining the ways that work life could be better. We tend to accept that the way we've always done things is the best way. Our school is wrestling with new technology--well, it's new to us, but probably old to our students. I've noticed that a few people embrace the technology and immediately envision ways to enrich the classroom experience. I've noticed that most people resist, at least at first. They're proud of their unwillingness to even try. They scoff at people who say, "But what if life could be better?"

I think of Harriet Tubman and her big gun (to use a modified line from Susan Griffin's poem "I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman"). I wonder how that translates into a management model. Once a slave went with Harriet Tubman, that slave was not permitted to leave. Like the Israelites, who complained to Moses and yearned to return to captivity in Egypt, I can imagine that many slaves weren't happy on the journey. But it was move ahead or be shot.

We seem to be in a similarly ruthless time period in this economic downturn. Move ahead or be shot (speaking metaphorically, of course). I've noticed that people feel they have less job security (because we all have less job security) and so, they are more likely to consider change than they once would have been.

And the Underground Railroad? What does it symbolize, if we're thinking of metaphors for work life? And free life in the north--a symbol for retirement? Or a symbol for getting out of debt so that one can consider all options? I could make a case for various possibilities.

Now that I've been thinking of Harriet Tubman as a model for management, I'll let my mind wander back through history to see if I find other possibilities.


Unknown said...

I'll tell you what the underground railroad symbolizes: ECOMPANION! gods know it feels like one is there, yet not there, buried somehow. one defies logic, coaxes the terrain, and is grateful for every inch that gives.
Seriously, though, i love it. don't tell anyone i said this, of course! i might jinx my own self.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Hi Kristin --
I wanted to stop by your blog to "drop off" my new blog at

Thanks Karen

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Karen: I've updated my link. Thanks for making the trip over here to tell me!

Shefali: Great ideas--but I'm sorry that you're wrestling with our schools online course software! Maybe at least you'll get a poem out of it.