Harriet Tubman: Changing Leadership Styles

Way back in April, Maurie Kelly talked about different leadership styles, not so we can pick the one we want, but to understand better what makes sense in a given context.

Dr. Kelly pointed out that a democratic leadership style in which team members participate in the decision making is a good model to emulate. Definitely better than an authoritarian model in which a leader makes a decision with no room for disagreement. This makes sense at Penn State where teams are generally made up of smart people with specialized skills. Learning to rely on the expertise on your team is beneficial to making better decisions in the long run, but putting the time into discussion will definitely longer than just making an authoritative decision.

But there are times when you need to adjust your leadership style for different situations. An interesting case is Harriet Tubman. She is most famously known for her missions to lead African Americans from slave holding areas in the South to areas where slavery had been made illegal. What’s not as well known is that she used guerilla style mission techniques to enact her escape missions, and later military missions in the Civil War.

One story is that if anyone on one of her escapes wanted to turn around, she would reportedly hold a gun to that person’s head and say “You’ll be free or die a slave.” She knew that anyone turning back could easily jeopardize everyone’s chances to escape the South. In this case, being authoritarian was a sensible model because she was the only expert and had to make quick decisions to ensure everyone’s safety. Dissension was literally life threatening.

It’s rare that authoritarian leadership would be needed at Penn State unless there was some sort of natural disaster (or perhaps a data disaster in IT). But Tubman was a wise enough leader to know this was the time to be authoritarian. She also used her analytic skills to understand best strategies (escape in the winter, on a Sat evening before the next notices were published on Monday morning).

Later in life, she worked to support both herself and in different humanitarian causes. She switched to a more “transformational” style of leadership hoping to inspire others with her speeches and example. Although she was owed a pension for her Civil War service, she did not immediately receive a pension leaving her in relative poverty for most of the remainder of life. Although she was not a formal leader, she was able to serve as an inspiration for both African Americans and the early Women’s movement. When asked if women should have the right to vote, she commented “I suffered enough to believe it.”

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