Learning from History: Harriet Tubman and Leadership

Leaders show their strength when the challenges are large and the dreams are big

In The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner share 30+ years of research and stories about leaders at their personal best. In the best-selling book, the authors outline 30 behaviors and Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

These practices and the behaviors that make them up are evident in leaders around the world and we often see examples throughout history. Harriet Tubman was one such leader and demonstrates these practices. Let’s see some of the connections between Harriet Tubman and these practices. She escaped slavery only to return time after time to help others escape to freedom. She was a leading abolitionist and utilized the Underground Railroad to lead many enslaved people to freedom.

In reading about the challenges and triumphs of Harriet Tubman, I am humbled by the courage and grit displayed to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The internal strength and fortitude displayed through her life is a beacon to what is possible when a person dedicates themselves fully to a just cause.

Early life

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland around 1820. Her given name was Araminta “Minty” Ross. At the age of around five, she started to be hired out to assist in another household as a nursemaid, where she was beaten for allowing the baby to cry. She was next hired out to set muskrat traps, but fell ill and was returned to her owner.

She was injured around the age of 13 when she was hit in the head with a heavy weight that had been thrown at a runaway slave. For the rest of her life, she suffered from headaches as well as premonitions and vivid dreams which she believed came from God talking to her.

At the age of 24, she wed John Tubman, a free man. Her mother’s owner had stipulated in her will that the family was to be freed when they reached 45 years of age, but the owner’s family choose not to honor these wishes.

Escape to Freedom

When she was 29, the plantation’s owner passed and three of Harriet’s sisters were sold. Harriet and her two brothers escaped the plantation to avoid the family being further split up. She changed her name to Harriet and took her husband’s name at this time. A reward was offered for the return of the three siblings and Harriet’s brothers chose to return. Harriet continued on, traveling 90 miles using the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania and freedom.

Harriet’s perseverance, grit, and toughness are a lesson for us all. Dealt a very challenging situation, she was able to overcome enormous odds to accomplish her goal of Freedom. Harriet had a taste of freedom and a belief that this should be available to all.

The Underground Railroad

This could have the end of a story of reaching for and achieving the goal of freedom, but not for Harriet. Harriet did not sit idly to enjoy the freedom she had earned, though it would be understandable if she had chosen to. She dedicated herself to helping others accomplish that dream of freedom. Leadership is about what we do with others, not for ourselves. Harriet Models the Way having traveled the hard road and returning time after time to use her knowledge to help others in their quest for freedom.

Every Great Dream

Harriet began working with the Underground Railroad to assist other people to reach freedom and took several missions through the 1850’s. When the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 rendered the free states of the union an unsafe destination for escaped slaves, Harriet began working with abolitionists Thomas Garret and Frederick Douglass. Harriet began going on missions the year after she had freed herself, helping others to reach freedom. She returned to Maryland to ask her husband to join her, but he chose to stay with his new wife. On that trip, she did bring another family north.

Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet moved her base of operations to Canada and rerouted the Underground Railroad to help slaves reach the safety of Canada. She worked rescuing families from bondage for almost a decade. She was able to modify her approach and path as the environment changed to ensure she and her passengers would be successful in her goals.

I was a Conductor

The Civil War

Even her success with the Underground Railroad is not the end of her journey. As the Civil War got underway, Harriett worked as both a nurse and a cook to assist the Union forces. She helped recruit former slaves for a regiment of African American soldiers for General Hunter. She then served as a spy and a scout for the army. Harriet continued to Challenge the Process by serving in roles and taking on challenges that were new.

In 1863, Tubman was the first woman to lead an assault during the Civil War when she led a raid that freed 700 slaves prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln later that year.

When the Civil War ended, Harriet returned to upstate New York, where she had a parcel of land that US Senator and abolitionist William H. Seward had sold her before the war. A biography of her life titled, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, was published in 1869 by Sarah Hopkins Bradford. Bradford published the second biography of Tubman, Harriet, the Moses of her People almost two decades later.

A Leader to the End

Later in her life, Harriet continued to Inspire a Shared Vision and Challenge the Process. Thirty years after her exploits with the Underground Railroad and in the Civil War, Tubman became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. She gave speeches in several cities about the need to give women the vote.

She also continued to Enable Others to Act for the rest of her life. At the age of 80, Harriet donated her property to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to be converted into a home for the aged. Taking this action allowed her vision to continue on after her passing, continuing to make life better for those she served through her adult life.

Harriet Tubman is an outstanding model of someone whose vision for what needed to change in the world drove her to make it come to fruition. It is not our situation and resources that limit what can be done by any of us. It is the size and clarity of our dreams and the grit, creativity, and strength to bring it to life.

Check out more blogs in the Learning From History Leadership Series where I cover other historical figures such as Florence Nightingale, General John Buford, and Abraham Lincoln.


Evans Kerrigan

Evans Kerrigan works tirelessly in both corporate and public sectors as a dynamic business consultant, presenter, and coach. With over 30 years of experience working with multi-national organizations such as Cisco, Sun, Blue Cross Blue Shield, BP, State of Arizona and King County Washington, Evans has been at the forefront of change management--building healthy organizations and creating great places to work. His contributions to these organizations have been credited with increasing employee engagement scores, dramatic reductions in costs and improvement in efficiencies and revenue, resulting in improved operational excellence.