Flippen: You Can Learn a Lot While Standing in Sewage

One of the most defining behaviors of consistent high performers that we study such as Gary Kelly, president and CEO of Southwest Airlines, is internal drive. I know that may not surprise you, but let me tell you how critical it is. On our proprietary executive assessment tool, Gary’s self-assessment and his 360-degree assessments were above the 90th percentile, which means he is well above average on his need to accomplish tasks, to go above and beyond, and to spend his time wisely.

Gary did not get that way overnight, nor did he “find his passion” and then become a hard worker. The highest performers that I have studied and worked with over the last 20 years work hard, period. In fact, they work very hard.

There are lots of places that you can learn a good work ethic, but you still have to learn to do it. In my case, I learned my most formative lessons about hard work while standing in raw sewage.

That’s what happened when I spent two summers working in my hometown’s sewer department. I stood in raw sewage virtually every time a sewer pipe broke and we were called to fix it. I loved that time because of the men I worked with. I had never worked so hard in all my life, and my boss, Essie Weber, was one of the finest men I have ever known. Essie was a strong, wise and well-respected African-American man who had run the crew for many years.

Drive is one of the most defining behaviors of virtually every high performer we have studied.

I was happy to have the job, as it paid fairly well and was one of the few jobs available at that time. One of the lessons I learned was that there is dignity in a job well done. It didn’t matter that we worked in the sewer department. What mattered was whether or not we were proud of the work we had done.

I also learned one other lesson during those summers. Our “big boss” was Bud Wilkerson, and one day Bud drove by a hole we were working in and told me to get in his truck. As we pulled away, he said, “I thought you might want a break.” I asked if the other guys were getting a break, and he laughed and said, “No.” I then asked him to drop me off so I could get back to work. Bud made the turn and took me back to the crew. As I was getting out of the truck, he smiled and said, “You are going to do very well in life.” For much of my success, I am indebted to Essie, Junior, Dennis, Roger and Bud.

Drive is one of the most defining behaviors of virtually every high performer we have studied. If you want to run the race to the top, you better put it in gear.


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