It is not an urban legend that well into the twentieth century canaries were used in the coal mines to act as sentinels to detect poisonous gases such as methane and carbon monoxide. The miners would carry the birds in cages. The canary was more sensitive to the gas than the miner. At the first whiff of gas, the bird would become sick, signaling to the miners they were in serious trouble. They were faced with one choice – hike it out of Dodge the quickest way possible, or face instant death.

A leader of an organization shares the role of the canary in the following way.

1. The leader must be the one that is deepest in the mine shaft. They have to be fully committed. One cannot lead by putting his toe in the water. They have to be fully submerged. If the leader is not fully committed, the organization will not succeed.

2. The leader must be prepared to expose themselves to risk. There is no guarantee of safety in a leadership position. He/she must be prepared to lose all to gain all. The leader is the pig supplying the bacon for breakfast, not the chicken supplying the egg.

3. The leader must be prepared to take a bullet for their people. When the chips are down, to run and hide is not an option.

4. The leader provides a safe environment. He/she must be the first to detect a threat to the organization.

The threat may be internal. It could come from a person within the organization that is a liability. It could come from an environment that is tolerant of abuse or apathy. It could come from a style of leadership that polarizes rather than coalesces. It could come from an environment that stifles creativity. It could come from financial mismanagement.

The threat could be external such as unexpected shifts in the marketplace, the creation of an uneven playing field, or from a competitor.

5. The leader must be highly sensitized to the nuances of an ever-shifting society. They must have the capacity to sniff out opportunities and dangers. They must have finely honed instincts.

6. The leader must be proficient. He/she must deliver the goods. They must have knowledge, expertise, and passion to perform the job in a competent manner.

7. The leader must be well fed and rested. Exercise will contribute to stamina. It’s tough to sniff the methane if your nasal passages are stuffed up from a cold.

8. The analogy of the canary and a leader may break down in one important area. The miners, as I understand it, had only one canary in a cage. A good leader needs to surround himself with other canaries that act as sentinels to the primary canary.


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