Leadership and Working on the Railroad

By | June 12, 2020

[June 12, 2020]  It seems that young men are always looking for adventure, making a few dollars to spend on the weekend and a way to get out of their parent’s home.  It was that way, and my first job after turning 18 was working on the Missouri-Illinois Railroad.1  It was my first “real” job; full-time and regular paycheck, railroad union member, and hard work.  While working my first summer in between college semesters, I learned about leadership, strong men, and working hard.

It was exactly 50 years ago this week that I started my job on the MIRR, and I was apprehensive about working with so many hard railroad men.  Yes, only men worked there and typically over the age of 30.  The reason was you belonged to the railroad’s union, and jobs were handed out based on seniority.  Better paying and easier jobs went to those with the most seniority.  Those like me got little in the way of overtime or cushy jobs, were regularly referred to as a piker or mannered (or some other derogatory term), were generally uninformed, effete, and clueless.  I had heard the stories, and they were true.

The workweek was a standard 48 hours (six days per week, Monday through Friday).  Regular workers got one week of paid leave per year, and after 20 years on the job, the vacation time increased to two weeks.  Men of the MIRR got the job done.  We believed that the Missouri-Pacific RR officers somehow looked down on us because the MoPAC owned the MIRR.  And usually, this frustration was taken out on me.  I never complained, ever.  I made great money, enough to pay my way through two years of college life.

I learned a great deal about manhood.  First, I learned that anyone who was mentally focused, paid attention to the rules (otherwise you just might get killed), worked hard, and had the right attitude, would succeed.  Second, I learned that men must be tough and protect others who were not strong enough.  We were Americans first, but being a railroad man was a close second; many veterans worked on the MIRR.  Third, laziness and sloppiness was almost a sin.  Too many railroaders were seriously injured or killed when in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a boxcar or caboose ran over them.  If you were slacking off, one of the good-ole boys might whack you upside your head.

Railroading is a rough job, and the men who work the rails are tough hombres.  I was 6’ 2” and 190 pounds at the time, yet I was small in comparison.  These were big men, like those you see today on logging reality shows.  Yes, I was a weakling relatively.  But I was also a quick learner.  Pay attention to the older men and watch them closely.  True, I would never be like them, or maybe I would never want to be, but they brought a vital work ethic to the job that I can still admire.

Learning about leadership is crucial for a successful military officer.  My time working on the railroad gave me insights into leadership that was impossible to gain anywhere else.  In my first job as a U.S. Army Platoon Leader, I worked with some hardened Vietnam War veterans.  The experience I learned on the railroad helped me, and those men gained my respect.

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  1. The Missouri-Illinois Railroad, at the time, was wholly owned and operated by the Missouri-Pacific Railroad (see an earlier article on it: https://www.theleadermaker.com/leadership-missouri-pacific-railroad/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

20 thoughts on “Leadership and Working on the Railroad

  1. Linux Man

    Good to read this article; made my day. I worked briefly on the railroad when I was younger and appreciate the men who were there with me.

  2. Janna Faulkner

    Another good article for my reading pleasure. Thank you for sharing your work experience and I actually learned something about men who work on the railroads.

    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      Me too. My grandfather was a conductor on the Sante Fe RR back in the 1940s and 50s. Man, I sure got a lot of interesting stories from him.

  3. Randy Goodman

    “The workweek was a standard 48 hours (six days per week, Monday through Friday). Regular workers got one week of paid leave per year, and after 20 years on the job, the vacation time increased to two weeks.” Gives you some perspective on the workweek our fathers and grandfathers had and that is just for a regular job.

  4. Kenny Foster

    Railroading is indeed a tough job like lumber jacks. Either you are tough and work hard or you’re out. I agree with others here that this is the kind of job other young men should have. It will do them good and you won’t see stupidity like we now see in the streets of the US.

  5. Andrew Dooley

    I also worked on the railroad — the Union Pacific — one of the greatest railroads of all time. I will say they had some wonderful senior people working there. Yeah, they had their problems like other RRs. And the unions help pull the RRs down to a point that they could not compete with truckers. Sad but true. Now we only have the skeleton of RRs left.

    1. Doc Blackshear

      There has been a decline in railroads because they are on fixed track and lack flexibility. Not just because of the unions demanding high pay and retirement benefits. Senior management (as opposed to leadership) gave away the store to keep unions in line. Now, the price is paid in lost jobs and income.

    2. Greg Heyman

      Well said. I’m sure your experience also gained you some respect. If you work with hard people, you will become hard to your will get kicked out.

  6. Eric Coda

    Great article for my reading pleasure this morning. I have my early cup of coffee, my dog at my feet, and my iPad to read your articles. Thanks Gen Satterfield for starting my morning off right.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Eric, that is the reason we all come here BUT also to get some bit of advice on how to be a leader just a little bit more. That’s right, even incremental improvement is better than no improvement.

  7. Walter H.

    Your first “real job?” From what I’ve read about your jobs growing up, I would say they were also real so I have to disagree with you a bit. Even a “job” that is 6 hours (or whatever) a week is still a job. You have to be on time, do what you are told to do, and have a good attitude. Otherwise you will be out.

  8. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    Loved the article. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Yes, I do agree that there is lots to learn from having a job. Much more can be learned when you get to interact with strangers you never knew before you got there. They don’t have any qualms about telling you that you are screwed up or somehow deficient. We need to get the truth and they will give it bluntly.

    1. Darryl Sitterly

      Yep, say it ain’t so. We all can learn something from those folks who have nothing to hide and nothing to gain from us. It’s the bare truth and too many Westerners can’t take it.

    2. Wilson Cox

      Good point Otto. I agree that perhaps we should be exposed to new people more often to help toughen us up a little and a place to bounce our ideas and behaviors around for feedback.

      1. Yusaf from Texas

        This is the basics of being a normal human being. Today, kids are too protected from the real world and ‘pow’ they hit a brick wall when someone finally pushes back on their ideas. No surprise we have snowflake college students today.

  9. Dennis Mathes

    Wow, you sure had a lot of jobs as a young boy and young man. Must have helped keep you out of trouble.

    1. JT Patterson

      Most older men had many jobs growing up. Today’s youth spend all their time on computer games. Nothing gained from doing computer stuff unless you are one of the very few that work in the IT field. Most of them come out as wimps, weak minded, frail, snowflake-like, and a burden on society.

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