Everyday leadership

From my childhood, I have many fond memories of Mom who is now 92 years old. She was the best mother with a positive and smiling demeanor. When I struggled with homework or some difficult decision, she was the one I sought for counsel. Persistently she reviewed the homework until I had an epiphany and the answers flowed. She always said, “There is a silver lining to every dark cloud.”

As a child, Mom took tap dancing lessons in Jacksonville, Fla., where my grandfather worked in an automobile plant. Sometimes when my younger brother, Jack, and I were dancing and learning our moves in front of the television to “American Bandstand,” Mom would demonstrate the dance of her youth, the Charleston. At 40, she could still kick up her legs. The Tap Charleston was popular when she was 5 to 6 years old and was probably the source of her skill.

The heat of August contained quieter times with Mom, Grandmother, and my sister, Sylvia. We sat in lawn chairs under a big ash tree with bushel baskets of freshly picked white half runner beans spread among us. Kentucky wonders were another bean we grew that required a pyramid of poles to allow the vine to wander. These beans were snapped and dried into what Grandmother called “leatherbritches”. Picking beans was monotonous to me though I carried my fair weight.

Snapping and stringing the beans was more fun. With the ash tree’s gracious shade covering us from above, Grandmother told stories of Tennessee folks or the three female voices broke into song from the Cumberland Plateau. First the stem was broken and strings were quickly stripped the length of the bean and discarded. Then a quick wrist action was used to separate the beans in two or three places. The rhythmic popping of the beans sounded like a small percussive instrument

Next came the inside work as the women folk cooked and bottled the beans. They were left to sit and cool a bit and then capped. Throughout the next hour, periodic popping indicated that a good seal had been achieved on each jar. My job was to carry the finished product downstairs to the cellar and place them behind the few jars left over from the previous year’s crop. You always wanted to use last years’ product first. First in; first out. To be honest, I did not like to eat green beans much in those days, but I loved the process, the stories, and the time with my family.

At the Ray place, there were individual tasks like milking a cow or slopping the pigs and there were team tasks like mastering homework, learning to dance or canning beans. I like the individual tasks. The cows were always grateful for me to relieve their udder pressure and the pigs were perpetually excited about eating. However, the team events were the most fun. With these activities, I always learned how to succeed with a group and how to make a mundane task interesting and enjoyable. Team tasks are always about the relationships.

The best leaders are those who make difficult or boring tasks fun. As a supervisor on difficult days, I told stories, made up and sang songs, or created good-natured contests. Keeping a good attitude and sense of humor along with creativity can help a team enjoy their work. It is worth the effort.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “Tons of Stone above my head: Coal Mining Stories with Leadership Lessons,” visit his Web site, www.raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.