[January 03, 2014] Learning about leadership starts at a young age. As a little boy in the late 1950s, when visiting my grandparents, I was sent to the fields to pick cotton by hand. After my first day, my grandfather paid me my wage of 10 cents. That day I learned valuable lessons on leadership I didn’t realize until years later. It has been proposed that we begin learning about leadership as children, whether picking cotton or any other interaction with people.
My first lesson was to be a good follower – to pay attention to what you’re told. I learned to follow directions of the experienced pickers. They showed me some tricks of the trade like how to avoid cutting your fingers on the sharp cotton boll and I learned to respect that. If you didn’t pay close attention to picking the soft cotton from the hard boll, you could get an infection in the hand and be out of work. No work meant no pay.
Another lesson was the importance to set expectations, so those that follow are in the right frame of mind, especially when surprises come about. I was not expecting it to be difficult to work all day in a hot, dirty field and receive so little money. Only much later did I realized that my pay was about what I’d actually deserved.
Finally, a leadership lesson that will stick with me forever; I learned that teamwork can accomplish more than individuals working separately. People had different jobs in the cotton fields and none were unimportant. I frequently got to be the “water boy” and was proud of it. Carrying water to the pickers was crucial to their wellbeing. The team was also honest; we never allowed rocks or dirt clogs in our 10-foot sack – pay was based on weight of the cotton picked.
Yes, lessons on leadership and how to apply those lessons actually begin at a young age. Once adulthood is reached and there is little leadership experience as a child, it will be difficult for a person to catch up on the skills needed. I see this in many college students. Rarely have they had a physically demanding job; many never had any job growing up or experienced anything to make them more resilient.
There is a social theory that postulates that we are good at complex things only after tens of thousands of hours. This may explain why those who are great leaders have been working at it since they were children. Picking cotton may not be the ideal method but it certainly helped me and later as an officer in the U.S. Army.
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[Good source for information on Cotton Picking] http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/machines_15.html