How to Lead a Redneck

We can thank Hapeville, GA native Jeff Foxworthy for giving rednecks their due. Jeff did not invent the word; the label has been around for a long time—at least 150 years. It has been a pejorative term used to characterize poor, white, ignorant, rural, bigoted folks who were usually missing teeth and lived largely south of the Mason Dixie line.

It has also been a term of pride. Just ask most any Hank Williams loving, gun-toting, pick-up truck driving, I’d-rather-fish-than-play-golf person you know. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t want to go,” sang Hank Jr., vividly capturing redneck regional pride.  Most true rednecks would not miss an episode of Duck Dynasty any more than their parents missed Hee-Haw.

If you grew up in a rural geography, even if you do not consider yourself a redneck, you very likely knew someone who was. So, Jeff’s non-stop one-liners were funny: “You might be a redneck…if there are more than five McDonald's bags in your car…if the Home Shopping Network operator recognizes your voice…id the taillight covers of your car are made of red tape...if you financed a tattoo, or if you’ve ever been involved in a custody fight over a hunting dog.”

The redneck experience is unique. Most are God-fearing, nature loving, family-oriented lovers of freedom. They trust their neighbors a whole lot more than the government. Most get a lump in their throat when they hear the national anthem and will go out of their way to respect someone in a military uniform. So, how many rednecks work for you? What do you think about a training class on how to lead a redneck?

About this point in this blog, you are suspecting something out of the ordinary is afoot. You are already considering the fact that this blog is not really about rednecks at all. It is about the danger of labels and typecasts. "How to lead a redneck" seems rather silly. And, redneck could be replaced with any designated group different than the majority.

I have been consulting organizations for over thirty-five years on how to foster a more humanist workplace. I have watched the profession go through lots of very savvy efforts to pigeonhole employees into categories or styles or features in order to make leadership more prescriptive. During the start of the diversity push, there were classes on “how to lead minorities” or “what women want in a leader.”

Then there was the personality instrument era. Many leaders took classes to learn how to influence ESTJ’s or Analytics or Controllers.  I have been in organizations that put employees’ Myers-Briggs, DiSC or FIRO-B scores under their cubicle nameplates so leaders could get an instant interpersonal roadmap for effective interaction. Meetings were battlegrounds of buzzwords. “Your critical parent is talking to my high D.”

Now we are learning about generational differences. I need to lead Gen Xers differently than Baby Boomers. Millennials need more of this and less of that. What do I do with the redneck under my leadership who likes Mozart more than George Jones? And what about the baby boomers who are “can-do,” purpose-driven early adopters who care more about learning than a gold watch, use Snapchat and listen to Jay Z?” It can all be very confusing when people don’t somehow fit in the neat boxes we have created for them.

Don’t Make an Ass Out of You and Me

I am a student of human behavior and an avid reader of books, blogs and articles on what makes people tick. I believe self-understanding is crucial to a well-lived life. I think leaders are influencers of people, not just a driver of results. Leading in the key of personality can orchestrate a harmonious, productive work environment. Great leaders never forget that people are complex and often unpredictable. Their work life is influenced, not just by the primary components of their life—family, career, health—but also by their internal reaction to these components.

I am reminded of a story Stephen Covey wrote in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He boarded a subway in New York City to go home. A young man and his three young children already occupied the subway car he chose. For three stops, the children jumped on the seats, yelled at each other, and acted completely unruly as their father sat silently. Dr. Covey was amazed the father made no attempt to discipline his kids. At the next stop, the young man got off with his kids. As he exited the subway car he turned to Dr. Covey and said, “I am so sorry my kids were loud and rowdy. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either.”

Leadership is not about the pursuit of assumption. We all know the result when we dissect the word “assume.” Leadership is about leading everyone using a set of values that reflect the best of who we are as people. It is about authenticity, honesty, compassion, empathy, and a drive to bring out the finest in others. It is also about a commitment to a purpose, a dedication to being a good steward of the resources for which we are responsible, and a remover of barriers that inhibit human potential from being unleashed. It is about leading for the long-term health of both the organization and the people that make it up.

Great leadership is recognizing that people are different; each is a unique creation. Great leadership is the recognition that human diversity provides a rich tapestry of talent and growth. It is the abhorrence of decisions about people based on some ethnic, religious, cultural or physical feature unrelated to high performance and excellence.

Learn much about generational differences; it is a fascinating topic. It enriches our understanding of ourselves; it deepens our knowledge of others. However, be careful of the ease with which our insight can breed stereotyping instead of appreciating; labeling instead of loving. Mark Twain said it well: “All generalizations are false, including this one!”

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