My First Big Leadership Lesson
Dr. James Emery White
- 2013 Sep 12
Most books and articles, blogs and talks, tell you how to be a leader by saying what you ought to do. Okay, but sometimes the most important lessons come from knowing what not to do.
I’ve got a long list. From experience.
Want to know one of my first ones that I still draw from?
When I was in my early teens, I led a team of grown men detasseling corn.
For those of you who don’t know what that means, I drove a large “carrier” down rows of tall corn. About eight or ten men were on the machine, spread-out on “tongues” in front of me as we went down the rows, pulling out the tassels off of the top of the corn stalks.
You had to do that to if you were going to cross-breed, or “hybridize,” two varieties of corn.
I don’t remember what we made per hour. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough. It was grueling work in the Carolina heat and humidity, and the temperature in the corn field was at least 10 or more degrees above whatever the weather report said it was going to be.
At my age, I shouldn’t have been driving - much less the crew leader - but there I was.
We did a row, then another row, then a third, and when we got to the end of that third row, all the men jumped off to rest.
They didn’t even ask me (the young teenager) if they could.
I was indignant, and sensed my first leadership challenge. I knew I couldn’t have my youth be used against me. So, staying in my driver’s seat, I said, “It’s too early for a break – come on, let’s get back to it!”
They told me in very colorful and creative ways what I could do with my “it.”
It was really too funny.
And they were right.
They weren’t being insolent, much less insubordinate. After about fifteen minutes of resting and jawing together about sports and sex (I kid you not, one went into a long monologue about an earlier tryst with a prostitute), they voluntarily got back on the machine and went back to work.
I was incredibly relieved, as I did not know what to do with their earlier refusal to keep working.
They had just been exhausted.
But I wasn’t.
But then again, I wasn’t working like they were. Yes, I was hot and tired, but I wasn’t pulling tassels off of corn. They were working their [buttocks] off, and I was just sitting and steering the wheel. If I had been out on one of the tongues, pulling the tassels off, I would have jumped off for a needed break, too.
First leadership lesson: put yourself in the shoes of the people you are leading.
Not to sound more noble than I am, but I actually put myself out on one of the tongues for just that reason.
It was hard, hard work.
But I’m glad I did it.
I still draw from that early cornfield lesson.
As a pastor, I remind myself to be keenly aware that the people who volunteer at Meck work forty or more hours a week in a job;
…they have marriages and families, budgets and schedules;
…they struggle with issues related to a divorced spouse who has privileges and twice-a-month on-the-weekend custody;
…they are single-parent moms trying to make their way;
...they are trying to juggle school and sports.
While it’s appropriate for me to challenge them to prioritize the things of God, it is equally appropriate for me to empathize with their life situations.
The good news is that not only did I get this lesson down early, but I have lived their life.
I worked in the real world (detasseling corn, waiting tables, and more); I had four kids two-years apart; I lived (live) on a budget; I work my fifty or more hours a week and then volunteer for a few more; I…
Well, you get the point.
All to say, I learned a lot during those summers in the fields.
And as a leader, I’m so glad I did.
James Emery White
“Detasseling,”read more about it online.
For more leadership mistakes (and lessons), read What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.