Monday, April 6, 2015

A Lesson in Leadership

I have recently been examining the histories of short line railroads. It is part of a hobby project. The short line railroads all operated in this region at one time or another. Unlike the massive railroads like the Santa Fe and Union Pacific with thousands of miles of track, most short lines are lucky if all their rail adds up to 20 miles.

One thing that kept coming to the forefront was a matter of personality. At one point or another, a short line would thrive and surmount almost any obstacle. The line may have had hard times previously, and may even have failed years afterward. Nonetheless, it experienced a time of success that stood out. The one thing that all of the short lines had in common during their best times was an uncommon excellence in leadership. Very often, it was the will and insight of one individual in a leadership position that guided a short line railroad through a period of its greatest success.

I am reminded fo what General John Pershing said about leadership. He stated: "A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops."

John Pershing was an amazing leader. In World War I, he not only led our Army, but managed to negotiate the political quagmire of dealing with our French and British allies. Pershing had been leading men for years before the World War. We can trust his estimation of the impact of leaders on their troops. The situation with short line railroads confirms the verity of General Pershing’s statement. A good leader makes a rinky-dink railroad thrive, and a bad leader can sink a giant railroad.

One such dynamic leader was George Clark of the Rahway Valley Railroad. Clark had experience in railroading in the West. He was brought in to run the Rahway Valley Railroad. Where leaders of big railroads sit atop several levels of bureaucracy, a small line improves with hands-on leadership. George Clark knew it. He was able to do every job on the railroad and understood every aspect from billing and paperwork to loading boxcars by hand. Clark was innovative and practical, He could see the rising competition from trucking and worked to mitigate its adverse effects on the Rahway Valley Railroad. The man had no pretensions about his small railroad, the competition ,and what it took to survive. Clark surrounded himself with good, reliable people. He was decisive and thoughtful.

When George Clark retired, his son took over his job. George Jr. had learned well and had the same traits as his father. Unfortunately, he died three years after assuming command of the Rahway Valley Railroad. No replacement could match Clark’s talented leadership. Today, the Rahway Valley Railroad is gone.

Another small railroad with good leadership was the Morristown and Erie. It stared with a character named Melnick whose railroad construction methods were haphazard, at best. The McEwan family took the reigns and everything improved. The McEwans were successful owners of paper mills in the region. Their business acumen set the Morristown and Erie Railroad in a profitable direction. The Morristown and Erie was able to survive against competition from trucking in the mid-20th century and the closing of plants that had been its customers. As with George Clark of the Rahway Valley railroad, the McEwans were up to all challenges.

In the 1960s, a new regime took over. Led by Andrew Cobb, it proved a disaster, Cobb and his crew started investign in non-transportation entities. They led the Morristown & Erie to bankruptcy. Fortunately ,the person charged with maintaining things under bankruptcy proved capable. The railroad was then acquired by Thomas Peterson. With Ben Friedland, he revived the Morristown and Erie. The small railroad thrives to this day, despite competition and changing markets. Good leadership accounts for a large part of it.

Here is a case where the experiences of short-line railroading confirm General Pershing’s insightful quote about leadership. Be it armies or trains or other businesses, leadership calls the tune. A good leader can make a rinky-dink operation succeed. History also shows that a bad leader can sink a first-class operation. Consider this carefully, because it is often the difference between success and collapse.


There is a booklet available about the history of the Rahway Valley Railroad. Here is the link:

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