Hands-on experience most powerful

On our little farm at Malaga, Ohio where my brothers and I grew up, the soil was rich. Plants of many species vied for the opportunity to draw the nutrients from the light brown loam. Nightcrawlers were also fond of this area. Early in the morning during the summer months, there were times when hundreds of nightcrawlers could be seen mating in our backyard. Being fishermen, we often picked up a few for our own purposes. We had to be very careful while extracting a worm from its burrow. If you pulled too hard, you could find yourself holding half a worm. We learned that a steady tension eventually got the job done. Nightcrawlers have tiny bristles, which they use to secure themselves in their holes. However, a prolonged pull tires the worm and wins the day when the worm’s muscles are exhausted.

Dad, in his biology teacher role, explained the reason for pairs of the nightcrawlers to be embraced across the yard. It seems each nightcrawler is both male and female, however self-fertilization is not possible. In addition to taking every opportunity to teach us any science relevant to the situation, dad was also determined to mold us into capitalists. Throughout his life, dad had dabbled in capitalist endeavors. He published a newspaper in Knoxville, TN, sold dwarf fruit trees and contracted residential construction. Few of his small businesses amounted to much financially.

With the abundance of nightcrawlers available, dad suggested we collect them to sell. My brother Joe and dad, with a little help from me, constructed a raised bed in what was once a milk house. We filled the bed with rich soil mixed with rotting leaves. We placed a dozen each into several styrofoam cups and stored them in an old refrigerator. The rest were piled into the bed. Then we painted a board white and nailed it onto a stake. With black paint we drew the words “Nightcrawlers for Sale, 50 Cents a Dozen.” Within a couple of weeks a number of our neighbors stopped to purchase worms. At times it was hard to keep enough inventory for the demand.

This experience was just one of many dad provided to help us learn about money, responsibility and the logistics of business. Summer months also brought the growing, hoeing and sale of sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, pumpkins and other garden crops. We also made money from raising pigs, veal calves and eggs from a couple dozen chickens. All of these business quests helped pay for my first year of college.

There are a lot of ways to learn important lessons. I believe hands-on opportunities are the most powerful. With each business we sometimes made mistakes and marked them also as valuable lessons. The best leaders when seeking to develop employees design tasks for the purpose of creating more skillful people who can step up and assume higher-level responsibilities. Those leaders who fear giving employees such opportunities tend to trap themselves in lower-level tasks and limit their potential for future business growth.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “And my Brother Jack: Everyday Leadership Lessons,” visit his website raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.

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