Courageous Leadership Lessons From Harriet Tubman

By: Eric Betts

Leadership expert, author, and trainer John Maxwell, highlighted the life of Harriet Tubman as an example of unmistakably natural and unrivaled dynamic leadership ability in his book 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland, and escaped in 1849 by using disguises, sailing on different boats, and riding on various trains until arriving in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she could live in freedom. She was not content with obtaining her own individual freedom but was burning with the inner desire to set other captives free. Tubman could have remained at peace and simply enjoyed her new life in freedom. But could she? Believing that she had a higher calling to help others also escape to freedom, she resolved to dedicate her life to the cause of abolition.

Between 1850 and 1860, Tubman led hundreds of enslaved persons from captivity in America. Traveling back across the Mason-Dixon Line after escaping slavery might have been thought of as foolhardy by some, but she had faith that her mission would succeed. Such a mission was extremely dangerous and life-threatening. Tubman could have been shot, tortured, or lynched. Bounty hunters and hounds were constantly on her trail, yet she never relented in her quest to free others.

One of the major qualities that great and exceptional leaders possess is that they are widely respected, and Maxwell states that Tubman demanded and received it throughout her life’s journey. Maxwell refers to “The Law of Respect” in his volume and utilizes Harriet Tubman’s experience as an example of how respect is gained by great leaders. Natural leaders who are respected by their followers project a strength of character that draws respect through their influence. What is remarkable about Harriet Tubman, as Maxwell sees it, is that her outward appearance did not in any way suggest that she even had the potential command others. She had an unimpressive stature at little over 5 feet tall, couldn’t read or write, and wore dusty and worn clothing. Unable to read or write, due to the fact that she was born into slavery, yet she was able to command hundreds. Who would ever imagine that one who suffered from often blanking out, due to an affliction from being stricken in the head as a child, could command the respect of statesmen and politicians? Not only was her race held against her, but the fact that she was a woman made her even more vulnerable.

Harriet Tubman would appear to be an unlikely candidate for leadership because the deck was certainly stacked against her. Despite her circumstances, she became an incredible leader. Her origins, stature, and lack of formal education remind many churchgoers of the ancient words of Scripture which say, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” How could a woman of such a humble station command such respect? If Harriet Tubman was in the employment pool for great leaders, it is unlikely that she would have been respected enough to be selected. Maxwell pinpoints six qualities that natural leaders possess which almost always commands respect:

Five ways leaders gain respect:

  1. Natural leadership ability — Harriet Tubman was one of those rare gems in history, a person who is born to lead; this is why she was not satisfied with remaining in Philadelphia while so many were left in chains. This also speaks to the many creative and instinctively demanding reactions to those who were afraid and sought to turn back. “You will go on or die” was her motto. She would not endanger the lives of her followers due to the timidity of some. Some people are born with greater skills and ability to lead than others. Because of the natural strength she projected, her followers had the sense that they were in good hands.
  2. Respect for others — Autocratic leaders rely on violence and intimidation to get people to do what they want, but good leaders rely on respect. They understand that all leadership is voluntary. Harriet Tubman was respected because it was understood by her followers that she was sacrificing herself for their freedom. This is usually not the case for autocratic leaders; they usually want others to sacrifice themselves for the leader. However, Tubman was forced to use intimidation in those life-or-death situations, but always in the mode of acting as a protector and with love for others. Her journeys were quite similar to secret military operations, where intimidation was called for. This was only a “military style tactic,” and was not the basis for her leadership. They followed her because of her love and strength of character. The difference with Tubman is that it was apparent she was willing lay down her life to rescue those she loved. Under normal circumstances when there are no life-or-death situations, intimidation as a tactic will only yield the temporary pretense of respect by followers.
  3. Courage — One thing that caused everyone to respect Harriet Tubman so much was her tremendous courage. She was determined that she was going to succeed or die trying. She didn’t care about the risk or danger and put her life on the line. Her mission was clear, and she was absolutely fearless. This fearlessness possessed by Harriet had a contagious effect which freed others to become hopeful. Those who followed her saw her courage and were inspired. Her motto was, “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” It was this attitude of fearlessness that led them so many times across the line and into “freedom land.” This was perhaps her strongest of the six leadership traits that demand respect.
  4. Success — It is attractive. Maxwell says, “People are naturally drawn to it. It is important when it applies to the people who lead us. No one can argue with a good track record.” Harriet Tubman was not bashful about her track record. She once said, “I am a conductor on the underground railroad. I have never lost a passenger and never ran the train off its tracks.” This record of success attracted thousands from different backgrounds and stations in life.
  5. Loyalty — Maxwell says loyalty “is when leaders stick with the team until the job is done, remaining loyal to the organization when the going gets tough.” Those who followed Tubman knew that they could trust her and that she would never abandon them.
  6. Value added to others — Maxwell says, “The greatest source of respect for a leader comes from his or her dedication to adding value to others. Their respect for them carries on long after the relationship has ended.” How did Harriet “add value”? What greater value can there be than to go from living in captivity to a position and place of freedom? In Pennsylvania, there was a greater sense of self-determination to become whatever one’s inner spirit said they should or could be, and to go wherever that inner spirit drives one to go. Those who followed her imagined what they could become if they only followed her.

The fact that Harriet Tubman was on the Most Wanted List in America showed that even those who saw her as a threat respected her. When people see that you care about their future and are willing to take risks to get them there, the respect they will give will be undeniable. They will charge a hill on your behalf. She was a great leader not only because of the strength she projected but also because she earned it through hard work and a track record of successful missions that was impossible to deny. Abolitionist John Brown referred to her as “General Harriet Tubman,” because her successful missions and leadership abilities were on par with military leaders. Harriet Tubman did not have an official position as a leader, which shows us that sometimes leadership isn’t about positions but character and qualities that command respect.

By: Eric Betts

Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religion Leadership and Culture at Athens State University