April 23, 2024

Sandy Hook

There's a Travel About

The Corporate Abolitionist

As a boy, I always enjoyed talking with my grandfather. He was a former sharecropper who migrated to Pittsburgh from rural Alabama. Moreover, he was a great storyteller. I believe this is why I enjoy analogies and metaphors so much. The journey wasn’t easy in those days, he said. Interstate travel was not user-friendly for African-American people. We couldn’t stay at various hotels or eat at certain restaurants. It was very challenging.

His decision to move north was based on the poor economic conditions of the south. Moreover, it was based on Alabama’s well-known “Jim Crow Laws” where separate but equal doctrine was considered a way of life. My grandfather was convinced that working in a steel mill next to a hot blast furnace was better than being a sharecropper on a cotton plantation. Both jobs were hard work – one just paid more. The steel industry was dangerous work. But it kept food on the table and a roof over our heads, he said.

Periodically, my grandfather worked two or three shifts straight — right next to a hot blast furnace. This wasn’t uncommon for him. He broke a cycle of poverty by moving his family from rural Alabama to Pittsburgh in the early 1950’s. It was apparent to him that being uneducated promised you a life-time of hard labor. And that’s why he reinforced the importance of education to his grand children. He referred to it as being “well learned.”

A conversation with my grandfather was always simple yet profound. I still remember his deep southern accent, and the way he used to explain things. And despite his fourth grade education, his words of wisdom intrigued me. The salt and pepper color of his hair seemed to reflect the insightfulness of his mind. The strange tint of his eyes made me think of the sizzling heat of the day — and long rows of cotton. Occasionally, when I gaze into the mirror, I am joyfully reminded of his dark-skinned face.

He dressed like a farmer – but carried himself like a prince. And despite his old clothes, he looked like a man of dignity. He taught me several important lessons about rural Alabama, sharecropping and his migration to the north. Among those lessons, was a fascinating story about “The Abolitionist.”

My grandfather described abolitionists as silent helpers. He talked about them with great respect. He said, “They were people who truly cared for African-Americans. However, they had to be careful not to lose their good standing in the white community.” Their primary job was to point African-Americans in the right direction. They told runaway slaves where to find the next safe haven.

In many ways, I modified my grandfather’s story to meet the modern-day times of corporate America. And based on this premise, I was motivated to write a miniature narrative about an imaginary person that I call “The Corporate Abolitionist.”

Figuratively speaking, a corporate abolitionist is best described as a person within the ranks of a company who helps another employee succeed. Their role is very similar to a mentor. However, it takes on a slightly different twist. It works the same way as the legendary “Underground Railroad.”

On the surface, you really can’t tell who these silent helpers are. They operate in a very quiet manner. Almost like an organization within an organization. They are people from different ethnic backgrounds who are familiar with the system. But more importantly, they help behind the scenes.

However, these individuals have to be careful not to lose their good standing. The primary role of a corporate abolitionist is to point you in the right direction. Sometimes they can tell you where to find the next opportunity. Often, they can tell you where pitfalls are – or what situations you should avoid.

According to leadership studies 101, these people are classic examples of leaders – informal ones. They exist in practically every organization you can think of. In many cases, these informal leaders are more effective than managers. They understand the difference between theory and practical application.

While they seem to use an informal process, their operation is very formal. They work in a covert manner. As Shakespeare would say, “they have the ear of Caesar and he listens when they speak.” In other words, a corporate abolitionist has friends in high places. They’re highly respected and have influence among the ranks.

These individuals (corporate abolitionists) remind me of experienced field sergeants who teach West Point graduates how to survive in combat. Using military slang “they have a lot of fruit salad.” Fruit salad is a term used to describe dress uniform medals and military achievements. Better said, these guys have been hit with scrap metal. They’re survivors! In addition to their skills and academic poise – they’re street wise. Borrowing from urban vernacular, let’s just say “they know the ropes.”

Above all, I learned that a corporate abolitionist must be able to trust the character, skills, and abilities of the people they are recommending. Just like in the days of the Underground Railroad, an abolitionist couldn’t be too careful. By helping others — they also put themselves on the line.

My grandfather gave me some advice that I probably would have received from a modern-day abolitionist. Here are several important lessons that I learned:

• Give your best effort and be consistent in everything you do
• Treat others with courtesy and respect regardless of their position
• Maintain high levels of integrity even if no one is watching
• Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far
• Exhibit reliability and hard work ethic
• Be an example for others to see
• Study and learn as much as you can
• Support your fellow team members
• Dress with self-respect and dignity
• Always demonstrate fairness
• Earn the respect of your peers – never demand it
• Be a professional
• Be a leader

In closing, I can never do justice to the words of an abolitionist. But I will try my best to summarize their intentions: A corporate abolitionist illustrates the picture of a mentor leading a fellow employee who has a burning desire to succeed. The abolitionist serves as a teacher, motivator and encourager. He or she guides other professionals on the road to higher goals. Historically speaking, those who were led to safety by these abolitionists never forgot the journey. More importantly, they never forgot their obligation to help others reach their full potential.

Bottom line: Use your professional career to make a difference. Teach other people the secrets to your success. Use your influence in a positive way. Demonstrate fairness — educate others, and try to lead them away from trouble if you can.