A person’s work ethic is not genetic, but learned

My dad was always thinking of odd jobs to keep his boys busy. I truly believe that he lay awake at night thinking up these ideas. In the mid-1960s for a couple of years, I accepted and planted 200 white pines that were given to any 4-H member who wanted them. Finally, Dad proclaimed to my brothers and me that we were going to plant a tree farm. The combination of the 200 trees that I had planted and land slippage on several acres of the farm created the germ of his plan.

We boys, of course, did not understand the scope of this looming task. However, I don’t think that we really had a choice in the matter. Reducing the obvious slippage on the hillside made sense to us but the 25-year period before harvesting the product was further than we could see in the future. Dad realized the motivation problem and paid us 50 cents an hour for our work. That amount wasn’t bad for a 12-year-old in 1966.

Dad ordered 9,000 white pines. He also rented tree-planting tools that were basically metal rods with metal handles on one end and a solid wedge on the other end. Dad created an assembly line process to plant the trees. He took an old broom handle and attached a piece of cheesecloth to the end and filled it with lime. He walked ahead of us and marked the ground wherever he wanted a tree planted. Jack, the youngest brother, laid one of the six-inch white pine sprigs beside the white marking. Joe, the oldest brother, manned the planting tool. He pushed it into the ground with his boot and rocked it back and forth. Then I placed the pine sprig into the hole. Joe again drove the tool into the ground next to the first hole and pushed the dirt tightly against the sprig. We repeated this process 9,000 times over a two-week period. Dad finished his job very quickly and left to complete other tasks.

The only downside of the whole process was sunburns. Jack’s was the worst with huge blisters. The upside of the tree planting project is the nice pine forest most of which is still standing and the stabilization of the hillside.

This experience was just one more exercise my Dad designed to teach us a strong work ethic. A person’s work ethic is not genetic. It is learned. If it can be learned as a teenager, there is some hope for adults. Leaders need to identify the motivation key for their followers concerning the task at hand. Then, they should design a doable process and give followers the freedom to own the tasks involved. Finally, people need to be held accountable for the level of performance required by the organization. If these three things are done, most followers will commit their energies and successfully complete the task.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Website, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.