LEADERSHIP IN THE UNDERGROUND

By Dr. John C. Maxwell

At 8:50 am on July 7th, 2005, London’s subway system experienced the unthinkable. In less than sixty seconds, three underground trains were blown up by suicide bombers. In the minutes following the bombings, smoke issuing from the underground tunnels was the only indication of the horrors they contained. Emergency workers rushed to investigate the smoke, and soon the world was rocked by news of the blasts. 39 passengers perished in the explosions. Hundreds more suffered cuts, fractures, and burns. The attack was the worst in London since Nazi air raids in World War II.

In the aftermath of the terrorist bombings, Britons demonstrated their trademark courage. Resuming business as usual, they refused to allow fear to dictate how they lived their lives. London’s subway system, The Underground, symbolized the undaunted spirit of the British. Amazingly, thanks to feverish work from maintenance crews, almost the entire Underground was back in operation the morning following the bombings. As the city went through its process of shock and grieving, The Underground was there to serve them.

In its June article, “Turning around the London Subway System: From Terrorism to the Olympics,” the University of Pennsylvania’s, Knowledge@Wharton, features the man responsible for the resilience of The Underground in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. In the article, Tim O’Toole, managing director and CEO of The Underground, describes his philosophy of managing one of the world’s most famous transportation systems. Three themes arise as O’Toole talks about overseeing operations of The Underground: competence, confidence, and mission.

Competence

On August 29, 2003, a London power outage forced O’Toole to evacuate a quarter-million passengers from The Underground during rush hour. Not a single injury was reported from the stranded passengers. “That doesn’t happen because of management intervention,” O’Toole asserts, “That happens because people in the field are in control and understand what needs to be done. The thing that makes 14,000 people behave that way is training and competence.” O’Toole is a firm believer in equipping his frontline workers to do the job, and he trusts them to deliver when circumstances call for immediate action.

Confidence

When a crisis hits, competence alone may not be enough. Leaders need to endow their people with the confidence to act decisively when time is precious. “We not only drill, drill, drill and train, train, train to make sure our employees have confidence,” O’Toole states, “But we understand that they make sure they have it.” Since having proof of your competence breeds confidence, O’Toole encourages workers to be certified. Thanks to O’Toole’s approach, more Underground employees are nationally certified than in any other company in the United Kingdom. “We want our people to understand that they know things other people don’t,” O’Toole says.

Mission

A sense of mission is the string tying competence and confidence together. O’Toole has been very intentional in casting a vision his company can grasp and go after. His slogan, “A world-class tube for a world-class city,” has become the rallying cry of The Underground as it implements $40 billion of improvements. The upgrades must all be put in place without disrupting service to London’s 12 to 14 million residents. As O’Toole describes it, “We’ve got to perform open heart surgery on this patient while he plays tennis.” As colossal as that challenge sounds, O’Toole believes a vision of The Underground’s accomplishments can motivate his workforce. “My employees know that they will take the world to those games (The Olympics) and take them home.”

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