The US Department of the Treasury recently announced Harriet Tubman as the replacement for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This makes her the first woman to be put on modern American paper currency.
Last year, I had the opportunity to participate in the grand opening of the Tubman Museum in Macon, Georgia. Harriet Tubman, the female abolitionist, was responsible for guiding many slaves to freedom through the use of several secret passages and road networks known as the Underground Railroad.
During my time at the museum, I had the opportunity to sign copies of my book, which I’m proud to say is available at the museum, and to interact with those in attendance. I also toured the newly opened museum and learned more about Harriet Tubman’s life. Since my visit, I have reflected several times on the story of this incredibly brave woman. Here are five quick observations I’ve made about her story:
- Leadership with no casualties.
As a person who consults leaders often, her story comes with an important lesson. As a leader, Tubman understood that she was responsible for not only her life but also the lives and well-being of everyone she led to freedom. The great danger that she faced on the job was no excuse for a bad performance.
“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
As a leader, you must understand your responsibilities and take them seriously. Your decisions and actions affect the lives of many—not just your own. You have to know that it is possible to guide everyone to the finish line, every time, without any casualties.
- She made a conscious decision to give back.
Once she became free, Harriet Tubman could have disappeared, never to return. She did not have to go back and rescue other slaves, but she did so anyway.
The lesson for me here is that when we achieve some level of success, it is important to understand that we have a responsibility to give back.
- She did not do what she did for the attention.
The nature of her work required a high level of secrecy; her work was done “underground”—away from the public eye. It was not done on a public stage and only those who were directly affected by her work knew what she did. Her motivation therefore was not fame but the desire to do the right thing.
- No excuses.
Being a woman in the 1800s had its challenges. Being an escaped slave in the 1800s came with another set of challenges. Tubman could have easily come up with a thousand different reasons as to why she did not have to go back and save others. No one would have faulted her for making excuses. But she did not let her circumstances limit her. She knew what she had to do—and she did it.
And therein lies the question for you: What’s holding you back in your life? What reasons do you come up with for not taking action?
- It starts with you.
It is important that we are aware of our problems, shortcomings and weaknesses. The quote below is often attributed to Tubman.
“I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Upon reading this quote, it is easy to center your mind on the topic of slavery. This quote, however, goes much deeper than that. I see it as a call for all of us to become self-aware of our limitations. Breaking free from our limitations starts with us. Whether in your business or in your personal life, becoming self-aware and embracing your limitations is the first step toward making real change.