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In Honor of Harriet Tubman, Pre-Internet Innovator

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Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

Editors’ Note: Many of our readers were outraged over the recent “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” web video that appeared on (and later was apologetically yanked from) Russell Simmons’ All Def Digital channel. In response to the controversy, Dr. Sybril Bennett, multimedia journalist and professor at Belmont University in Nashville, shared with ESSENCE.com an excerpt from her book "Innovate: Lessons From the Underground Railroad."  In chapter 3 of her book, Bennett argues that although Tubman didn’t have access to the technological tools we use today to mobilize, she wielded many of the same skills and instincts that Internet innovators and leaders must possess — and thus deserves the utmost respect in our digital world.

Harriet Tubman, originally named Araminta Harriet Ross, was born in 1822. She helped guide hundreds of the enslaved to freedom. Slave- holders offered tens of thousands of dollars for her capture. Tubman met like-minded people whom she could trust in order to realize her goal: freedom for her people. In a sense, she managed her brand, her reputation and her desire for the enslaved to be free. She used her instinct and the tools placed in her path.

The Black Moses, as she was called, didn’t have technology in order to communicate. But like the Underground Railroad itself, she was a disruptive force. She was an out-of-the-box innovator, Black, female, and an enslaved person who had to implement creative strategies for success.

Harriet Tubman’s story isn’t chronicled in most leadership books, guides, case studies, websites or manuals. But Tubman is definitely a Jim Collins “level five leader,” as described in his book Good to Great. Collins’ level five leaders don’t take credit for initiatives; they operate with integrity, encouraging and empowering the team to succeed as well as acknowledging their contributions. In Tubman’s case, she gave the credit to God. She prayed, expected and received deliverance. She clearly mastered what Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox: believing no matter the situation. Innovators have to believe in the impossible.

By speaking directly to her passengers, Tubman embodied true leadership without electronic tools. Face-to-face communication is still the most effective way to convey a message. In her day, part of Tubman’s brilliance was due to her mastery of the art of communication. Leaders must exercise the art of listening and sharing information.

Instinct, intuition and the internal voice are valuable assets for leaders. Tubman embraced her spirituality and utilized it on the UGRR. In order to innovate, one must have faith it can work; risk takers are fearless enough to follow a hunch. Tubman led from within and her followers believed in her intuition. The ability not only to hear but also to heed the voice within is immensely important — it was critical for the unofficial leaders on the UGRR, and critical too for innovators of the information superhighway. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams both credit following hunches for part of their success. This is the case author Malcolm Gladwell makes in the book Blink; in certain instances, having too much data can be a hindrance.

The true irony of this offensive All Def Digital video is that if Harriet Tubman were alive today, she would have ignored such antics and continued completing the assignment she was given. With death threats and bounties on her head, she did not have time to entertain frivolity.

The good news is the resurrection of Ms. Tubman has also jolted other souls to life. The “wires in a virtual box,” to paraphrase the words of the late Edward R. Murrow, a paternal figure in broadcast journalism history, are not being used to serve the public interest, convenience or necessity. Yet this public debacle just might help to put a necessary movement against such outrageous depictions of Black women back on track. May the spirit of Harriet Tubman live on purpose.

Sybril Bennett, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism at Belmont University and the author of Innovate: Lessons from the Underground Railroad, a comparative analysis of the UGRR and the Internet as among the most effective, innovative and disruptive networks in U.S. history.

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