What Miners Can Teach Us About Leadership

For the last year I have been working with a group of 70 leaders from a large mining house situated in the Free State.  On a monthly basis we spend time together examining leadership from different angles and analyzing their leadership abilities and performance.

This group of leaders is a tough bunch.  To work on a mine it seems you need to be.  While some are near retirement, others are still in their mid to late twenties, but we would be foolish to think that any of them are wet behind the ears – most of these men started working and training on the mines fresh out of school, and the time offered to them to transition into their roles and acclimatize themselves to conditions underground is about 20 minutes, give or take a minute here or there.  It’s a sink or swim kind of environment.

Below the surface of the earth, in the travel-ways and crawlspaces of a mine, it is an entirely different world.

If you or any of your crew members, usually about six or seven, make a mistake or ignore safety protocols and procedures, injuries will most likely be incurred and at worst you and your crew may die.

Tirelessly though, thousands of men and women stream in and out of the cages that are their only link with employment below and life and family above.  Their job:  to pull out of the earth thousands of tons of gold infused rock whilst enduring some of the toughest working conditions I have ever encountered.

And these 70 leaders are those upon whose shoulders the safety of all those underground is entrusted and the production performance of the mine is expected.

These are leaders.  And as we have spent time together and as they have invested themselves in the processes of development and growth, it has been my great pleasure to witness just how much they have changed and how far they have come.

My first experience of them was not an entirely positive one though.

During our first session with them, we quickly realized that they had come to a point where they were all very negative.  They had a large number of different reasons for being so, some personal, some professional, but by and large, they were negative and when negative it is very difficult, nigh impossible, to develop people.

So my colleague and I decided to allow them to vent their frustrations on us.  But instead of just listening and giving an occasional grunt of acknowledgement, we began to write all of their complaints and ills down on a flipchart.  Session after session, four at a time, they helped us to fill page after page.

From a leadership perspective, it was an extremely interesting and insightful few days.

I would like to share some of the insights we gained and subsequent lessons we and these leaders learned with you:

The first is Blame.

These leaders complained bitterly of feeling like they had been disempowered by leaders above them and by rebellious, undermining (no pun intended) subordinates.  They spoke of their position’s authority been taken away or usurped by those they reported to.  It was those around them.

What is so interesting is that in the very act of pointing fingers, they were disempowering themselves.  By blaming those around them for their problems and challenges, they inadvertently and subconsciously gave their power away.  They were in effect saying that they had no way of influencing the current situation because they were victims.

By the end of the session though, they had heard, in no uncertain terms, that the onus was on them to take their power back.  And the lesson they learned that day and since is that power can only be had if one stands up and becomes accountable.

The second insight I entitle Dishonesty.

Naturally, we as human beings don’t like to be embarrassed or feel like we are inadequate in any way.  This is the root of why you, I, and everyone around us lie every day.  Perhaps you think you don’t lie – but I’d like to challenge that.  If you or I go heavily into debt to finance a fancy car, impressive wardrobe or big house, we are in fact lying.  We are saying to the world that we own something that we do not and we are trying to convince the world that we are something that we are not.  We compare and cannot help but create a façade, a masquerade to hide our perceived shortfalls.  Worst of all though is the fact that we begin to lie to ourselves.

So too, these leaders found themselves caught in a web of misrepresentations and conjured figures.  They were not necessarily the initial perpetrators, but they were certainly involved in perpetuating the false facts.  Why?  Because of fear.  Perhaps it was first the fear of looking incompetent but it soon become a fear a losing their jobs and income.  They were most certainly caught in dishonesty’s complex trap.

Where are they now?  Striving to be as honest, bold and open as possible.  Why?  Because they have realized that improvement can only come on the back of a realistic, truthful assessment of one’s position.

And the third and final insight I call Goals.

It has been an absolutely fascinating experience to sit in meetings where executive teams develop and decide on the goals they are going to focus on.  The fascinating part of it all comes after the teams have agreed on their aspirations and it is time to create a plan of action.  You would be shocked to know how many teams create goals for their goals instead of deciding on solid action items.

As an example:  perhaps our goal is safety (very relevant in the mining industry as mentioned above) – and one I have heard time and time again mentioned as an “action item”:  “We must emphasize safety in all our meetings.”  This is not an action item.  This is another goal.  An action item would have sounded more like:  “We will allocate the first five minutes of every meeting to running through points one to five of our blasting safety protocol, and we want you Themba to run this.”

Is it any wonder why things don’t happen in so many organizations, maybe even in yours?  We make goals for our goals instead of creating an action based plan to realize them.  This has been another lesson.

This team of 70 leaders has come a long way and is doing some incredible things.  I have a huge amount of respect for them.  And as we confront different leadership challenges together, we continue to learn lessons that cannot be learned from a book or in a lecture hall.

And the greatest of these:  You and I can change and improve.

This article was featured in the





Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on CliffCentral.com, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

Follow Us

Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.