I and It or I and Thou?

Posted 04.14.2010

Prayforminers This is one of those posts where I have to get some things off my chest. As someone who grew up in West Virginia, the coal mine explosion in Montcoal that killed 29 miners last week has been on my mind and heart.

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran brief obituaries on most of the miners.  Looking over those two pages, I said to my wife, “I feel like I knew these people.”  I grew up in Huntington, a town on the Ohio River that got its start as a rail and river town moving coal out of southern West Virginia.  When I was in high school, I travelled all over the state in a leadership role with the West Virginia District of Key Club. As a young adult, I travelled all over the state again when I worked for the governor of West Virginia and then in six years working for one of the largest banks in the state. In my mid-thirties, as VP of HR for Columbia Gas Transmission, I regularly travelled up and down the pipeline to small towns in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and throughout Appalachia. 

So, in a way, I knew the guys who worked in that mine. I grew up with people like them. They’re good people, who work hard, care about their families and are trying to make a good life for themselves and their kids. It goes without saying that coal mining is hard and inherently dangerous work. Still, the guys who died in that mine last week deserved a hell of a lot more than what they got.

The mine at Montcoal, WV is owned by Massey Energy. As reported in the New York Times, Massey is one of the leading safety violators in the coal industry. Its CEO, Don Blankenship, recently said that “violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”  Blankenship is the same guy who donated $3 million to elect a West Virginia supreme court justice who ruled in his company’s favor on safety violation cases that came before the court. His company is one of the leaders in permanently altering the natural landscape of West Virginia by blowing up the tops of its mountains in a process called mountain top removal mining.

It all reminds me of a small book I read several years ago called I And Thou by the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber. Buber’s book is not an easy read, but here’s what I took away from it. We can view our interactions with people as "I – It" relationships in which people are essentially functions of production that enable us to achieve our goals. Alternatively, we can approach our relationships as "I – Thou" relationships in which we look for, acknowledge and act on the sacred aspects of the human experience.  

I’m not naïve enough to believe that even the best leaders are always going to approach their work from a 100 percent  "I – Thou" perspective. So what do we, as leaders, do with this distinction? I think one place to start is to get into the habit of asking  ourselves are we approaching our work with an "I – It" or an "I – Thou" approach.  Another idea is to get as clear as we can about what an "I – Thou" approach would look like in the real world that we’re leading in. For more on that, I’ll throw it over to you the reader. What sort of leadership behaviors would we see in someone applying an "I – Thou" perspective to their work?  What sort of decision making criteria should a leader use in sorting through the "I- It" and "I – Thou" perspectives?