Driving the Last Spike: Laying Rail as a Leadership Lesson

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Railroad Leadership Durakis

In my last blog, I mused about trains… specifically, how they used to be the biggest and baddest technology around, especially for transmitting information. Today I want to take the railroad idea one step further and explore the people idea behind laying the track itself. Let me explain.

Back in the 1800s, train tracks were laid down piece by piece. They were the definition of manmade. Railroad workers – or gandy dancers, as they were called back then – would lay down track as they went, unloading track off a train, laying that track down in front of the train, and then driving over it when a stretch was completed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It was a manual, dangerous, and pioneering process, and primarily done by immigrant labor who laid the steel backbone of our country, East to West.

Today our nation’s train infrastructure has extended its iron fingers to every corner of the country. And it’s as busy as it’s ever been. While the iconic “Gandy Dancer” is now a piece of history past, the role of “track technician” lives on, although it’s primarily focused on modernization and upgrades. Now here’s the interesting part. Today’s railroad track must constantly be tested, replaced, and configured, a job now performed by elaborate computerized rail machines that move/replace/configure rail at an astonishing rate… and with minimal human involvement (Watch this video, you’ll be blown away). These machines are quite literally doing the heavy lifting. With minimal staff in a few hours, these machines are accomplishing what crews of the 1800s took weeks or even months to achieve.

What’s the leadership lesson here?

It’s never been about the track. And the machines are not really replacing us. The way we modernize with technology today is the same as we modernized in the past. It’s just that the pace is accelerated.

At the end of the day, it’s about people. Always has been. Whether we do the work, create the machines that do the work, or oversee the machines, people are at the heart of the equation. So stop worrying about technology. Whether you and your team are manually driving the spikes or programming the robots that actually do the work, a great leader knows that people make all the difference. So lead them wisely.

Sources:
• Header graphic [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Workers_Adjusting_Railroad_Tracks,_Texas_Gulf_Sulphur_Company_(12462979104).jpg
• Body graphic [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tracklayingcrewinwoods.jpg