What Farm Kids Know About Leadership

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…

Image courtesy of Helen Hoffman Deem

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.


Mary Schaefer
Mary Schaefer
Mary is a fierce advocate for developing workplaces where the human beings who happen to be employees, thrive. Her speaking, coaching, training, and writing all focus on making the most of what human beings can contribute to an organization through their distinctive energy and creativity, while at the same time meeting their own specific needs for meaningful work. As the principal of her own business, Mary is a guide to increase empowerment and cultivate productive manager/employee interactions. Drawing from her experience as an HR manager, her work centers on talent development, performance management, and a positive employee experience. She is a co-author of the book, "The Character Based Leader." Mary has presented at the Inspiring Women in STEM Conference and is also a TEDx speaker. Her clients include small businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and Fortune 500 companies. Mary has a master's degree in human resources management and is a certified HR professional. This Midwest farmer's daughter is a big fan of homegrown cantaloupes, gapingvoid art, and LinkedIn.

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  1. Wow, I grew up loving horses and as a kid from age 10-15 I had the privilege of taking care of several horses during that time. I was responsible for everything except feeding the horse.
    I never realized that there is a different look or attitude about work than what I learned on that farm at a very formative stage of my working life. I don’t have a college degree, so no one ever had to show me how to be a boss because I always got passed over for promotions. This explains why.

  2. Mary — you did an exceptional job connecting the immense value of work ethic and accountability that occurs in “farm life” and tying that to successful leadership. In the evolving world of work, inclusion and followership are super-critical to getting things done smoothly. I believe you’ve captured the exact types of behaviors people need to see from leaders to effect the buy-in to bring their best selves to work.

    Someone captured a picture a week ago of a CEO (of a reasonably large, name-brand tech company) changing the coffee filter in the break room and posted it on LinkedIn as a reflection of that company’s values… as a way of saying that everyone at that company pitches in to get the job done. The employee seemed proud that his CEO was contributing to something so “small” to help the team. I loved that post… and I’m sure others did, too. It’s a return to the values that I believe will put us all in a position to truly work together more collaboratively and openly to bring our best selves to work and create amazing outcomes for our customers, partners, and employees.

    Thanks for the read. I could almost smell the fresh air and hear the animals. (And I can definitely match that pix with the polyester stripes on stripes ensemble!)

    • Tonya, it is a delight to read your comment here. I am so glad you got so much from the post!

      I hoped this would resonate with you knowing your background. There is much to be gleaned from such lessons and the subsequent values established. LOVE your story about image of the CEO changing the coffee filter. I ran across this quotation yesterday that connects me with the impact of that photo: “It is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found.” Jonathan Miller. What we know is there are deep opportunities in the seemingly negligible.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I so appreciate it. Talk soon.

  3. True story, Mary. Try baling hay for a day, the old fashioned way…with hooks and a flatbed. Never worked so hard in my life, but the country food that followed from the farmhand’s wife was wonderful. Hot, sweaty work…but I learned a a lot about finishing a job to completion. Still follows me today.

    Greetings from NE Wisconsin, where farming still thrives!

    • Your comment made me chuckle at the memory, Andrew. I haven’t thought about “putting up hay” in a long time. Fortunately, my dad gave me a break on those days, as I was only assigned to drive the tractor – not quite as punishing as what you did.

      AB: “finishing a job to completion” – yes, there were few things you could put off until tomorrow on the farm. Deep lessons.

      Greetings to you too! I grew up on a (primarily) canteloupe farm in Southern Indiana. We called it “truck” farming because that implied we grew produce moved by truck. I miss the Midwest. Thank you for commenting!

  4. Mary – I, too, worked on a farm as a teenager and was grateful for lessons learned so, to me, your story is so relivant.

    I hope you corrected your colleague. I experienced the same situation but I explained to my boss the importance of teaching the administrative assistant the layout techniques so that she would be able to handle future projects with confidence. He thought for a minute and then agreed.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Len. Working on a farm is a unique and irreplaceable experience. As an aside, I am also so deeply appreciative of all the time I got to spend with my father, involved in his livelihood – irreplaceable too. Back to the colleague – I’m glad you had such a positive experience in explaining your approach. I hope you sharing your perspective got paid forward repeatedly. Thanks again for commenting.