[December 22, 2016] Yes, even teenagers can be good leaders and many are very good without formal training or mentoring of any kind. It appears as if they’re born that way but we know that not to be true. Such was the case when a young teenager taught me a lesson in leadership and a gaggle of other newly-hired 12-year olds. Stocking the shelves at the local grocery store was the venue; leadership was the subject.
We weren’t new to work, nor having someone just a few years older teach us something. We’d learned to play sandlot baseball that way and how to pitch a ball so it had a curve in its arc to the batter. What we didn’t have experience on was someone actually teaching us the “interworkings” (as he called it) of leading others.
On a sunny Saturday morning in the mid-1960s at a small Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store in northeast Louisiana, teenager Billy Cox gave us our first lesson. “The first thing you need to learn here,” he said looking down on us, “is that honesty is everything.” He told us to admit to any “screw-ups” and to keep our boss informed, “Like Audie Murphy did in World War II.”
Here are six things Billy taught us about leadership:
- You don’t have to have great people to have a great team.
- Customer service means respecting them always.
- Money is never the main motivator of people.
- Making mistakes is part of being human; just admit it, learn from it, and move on.
- If you’re going to lead, lead by example and do it from the front where others can see you.
- and be honest because that is what distinguished the good from the bad.1
We were learning those things that mattered in leadership. Some of my friends at school were surprised to learn that Billy was our boss. Billy was not unusually tall or handsome, only an average player on the ball team, and passable in school (but always did his homework). He was no standout either academically or physically but he knew how to convince people about what was important and could easily sway an argument his way.
Thanks to Billy Cox, I was able to survive stocking shelves as a pre-teen. I never became the boss, of course, but I did learn what it took to be one. Later in life, I look back on that time and think where would I be if it were not for Billy and the many like him who took the time to personally educate me on leadership.
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- Billy laid the foundation for honesty at work and in our daily lives. He told us that anyone of us could be the boss someday but telling the truth, coming clean if wrong, and being forthright was the essence of those who lead others. And Billy led by example; he was always clean, worked hard, was always there for us, kept us up to date, and took care of us when he could.