Everyday Leadership: Hayfields and the lessons they teach

I followed my brother Joe into the hayfields when I was 12. We worked together for several of the local farmers. The work was hot and strenuous. At first, I didn’t think I could last the 10-hour days we sometimes worked. But I looked over at Joe and he steadily tossed bales over his head onto the wagon stacked high with hay. He never quit. He seldom complained. I learned to persist until the task was done from Joe. He was a good role model for me.

Putting up hay at the age of 12 was the first time that I was hired for my services outside the family. By the time I was 14, I was helping to house 30,000 bales a year. At the end of every day, I asked the farmer, my employer, how many bales we put up that day. I wrote down his tally in my log. The rate was generally around 100 bales an hour or about 1,000 a day.

This job was one of the most physically demanding jobs I ever performed. In the heat of the summer sun, my fellow workers and I slung these 50- to 60-pound square bales over our heads onto the wagon. Hay chaff floated down and stuck to every part of my skin covering my arms, chest, and back.

After the wagon was stacked as high as possible, we headed for the barn. The ride to the barn cooled us as we sat high on the stack of hay bales. The best thing about returning to the barn was reaching the water cooler. As the barn filled with hay, the job got tougher. In good hay years, most of the farmers filled their barns to the roof. An elevator carried the bales up just so far and then we had to carry or drag them by the strings the rest of the way to the peak of the barn roof. The heat magnified by the metal roof made me sweat like it was raining. The dust often choked me and I coughed for several minutes after climbing down from the loft.

But I went back the next day and did it again. From June through August with the exception of rainy days and football practice, I put up hay. One dollar an hour was good money for a teenager in those days. I felt good about becoming a little more financially independent. I added almost $300 from putting up hay to the money I earned growing and selling sweet corn. Some of this money went to pay for my school expenses and buy a stereo during my freshman year at Western Kentucky State University.

These experiences taught me about capitalism and the benefits of an honest exchange of goods and services among people. I have always believed in working for my employer as though I were working for myself and in providing a product worthy of its cost. The year that the corn worms were bad, we told the customers and cut the price of the sweet corn in half. One of the most important functions of leadership is to focus on the quality of the services and the products that we deliver to our customers.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.