I grew up on a farm. Yep, that’s me, at 5-years old, working with my father. Notice the stripe-on-stripe outfit. I dressed myself that day. And that’s not the only thing I did that day…
Farm kids learn responsibility early
I would say I “added value” as early as age 5. I knew this because it was obvious to me what happened when I lolly-gagged. It slowed my father down. I needed to keep things moving. I learned what part I played early on.
I worked in some capacity every summer on my family’s farm until I was a rising senior in college. I didn’t appreciate what I got from it until after I worked at my corporate job for two to three years after college. It then dawned on me that I learned:
- Consider: are you “too good” for any job? If I saw something that needed action, like emptying my trash in the middle of the day, I wasn’t going to ask someone else to do that. After years of digging in the dirt, I didn’t give what some consider dirty work a second thought.
- Do your work until it’s done. When it makes sense, work until you complete the task. No reason to create a manufactured break or even leave precisely at 5 pm when 15 more minutes would get something taken care of.
- You’re not done until everyone’s done. Just because I wasn’t assigned a task doesn’t mean I can’t help you sort through those training manuals. You look overwhelmed and the job needs to be done before the end of the day.
What does this have to do with leadership?
There is good reason to not do the things I’m describing above. You have to think about your choices carefully.
I remember getting chastised by a senior colleague for helping an administrative assistant with some tedious work. From his perspective, it was beneath me. My colleague actually said to me, in front of that assistant, “You’re getting paid too much to do that.” Yes, I get that. My thought was that I’d make up my other work on my own time. And my heart sank. I wonder if he knew he made a big withdrawal with this woman sitting beside me. My intention was to make a deposit and get the job done.
You’ve got to pick your moments and make decisions about handing off tasks depending on the circumstances. I consciously choose to help her.
What my colleague didn’t bother to find out was that she was working on a project I was leading. I wasn’t about to dump all this work on her. To me, passing off this task without my willingness to help would define it as dirty work to her.
I wanted to make an impression on her. I hope I elevated the task by my own willingness to do it.I wanted her to see it as important. I wanted her to see her part as important because it appeared, by my example, that no level of work was not important to me. That was my goal.
Isn’t that what leadership is? Creating an environment where people want to give their all and do their best? Ask any farm kid.
A version of this post originally ran at the Lead Change Group site August 5, 2011.