3 Leadership Lessons from Dolly Parton…What?

Which female recording artist has 46 Grammy noms, a nearly billion dollar entrepreneurial empire, and has donated over 100 million books to children?

Admit it, if you hadn’t seen my headline you might have guessed Beyoncé, JLo, Taylor, or Gaga but the lady in question is none other than Dolly Parton.  Whether you love her music or not, the fact remains that she is one of the most successful public figures of our time.

If you want to treat yourself to one of the best “leadership” books that isn’t a leadership book, take a listen to Dolly’s new book Songteller on Audible.  This beloved and courageous businesswoman’s memoir is about how leaders are made, how skills are honed and how surrounding yourself with the right people is just as important as leading them.

Not only is it a delightful listen, it reminded me of the three most important lessons we can all learn to build our leadership practice. 

Here’s what I learned …

No one becomes a leader by themselves

Talent and leadership aren’t things we acquire by spending 10,000 hours in a room alone with ourselves. In Songteller, Parton shares her belief that the people around you help nurture your passions and who you become. Their encouragement is what allows your natural abilities and interests to take hold.

She tells the wonderful story of writing her first song around the age of seven and the loving encouragement her mother gave her. Not feedback on how to be better, but generous enthusiasm for what she had already done. It was this simple act Parton recalls with clarity almost 70 years later that embedded in her a passion for songwriting and the belief she could do it.  

There’s a nuance here worth noticing. The difference between offering critical feedback in an attempt to make someone great and offering enthusiastic encouragement that lets them find their own way to greatness.

In your own quest to find a career and work you love, are you sharing openly with others who don’t try to “fix” you but rather encourage you to keep going strong? When one of your work colleagues or team members tries something for the first time, are you taking time to “see the light” in them and offer encouragement?

Working through the blisters is how we grow

When Parton received her first guitar as a gift, she went after learning the instrument with a vengeance. If you’ve ever tried to learn the guitar, you know that the first thing you pick up is blisters on your fingers. 

Of course, Parton was young and the painful blisters brought her to tears. She was ready to quit.  And if she’d been on her own, the world might never have heard her mesmerizing songs.

Thankfully, her Uncle Bill, who had given her the instrument, told her she couldn’t quit. “You have to work,” he said, “until those blisters become calluses and you can really play like you want to.” 

I can relate to this, can’t you? Doing something new – whether it’s giving a presentation, learning to ski, cracking an egg, or writing a company-wide email – is painful at first. And yet, with each attempt, you learn, get stronger, get better, and closer to your goal.  

The lesson here is that, as learners, we need to surround ourselves with people who won’t let us quit. And as leaders, we need to encourage those we’re leading to keep going, keep working even when the going gets painful and tough.

We are all capable of far more than we can imagine if we have people who tell us to keep going through the difficult times.

It’s as much about the people around you...

One of Parton’s less advertised accomplishments is her marriage of 57 years. This is an extraordinary achievement in any book. So I found it fascinating that she learned early in their life together that Carl wasn’t the least bit interested in her songwriting process. He didn’t want to hear her songs until they were finished. Ouch. Her own spouse! 

Of course, we’ve all glazed over at one time or another when someone we cared about shared their particular obsession with us; something that maybe bored us to tears. The more sane among us, in that moment, realize it’s not the end of the relationship but a sign that we need more than one partner in life.

Never one to give up on anything, Parton realized she needed to find others she could bounce ideas off of. Thankfully, her best friend, Judy Ogle, fit the role perfectly, saying to Parton, “I just like to hear you think.” The two would sit and drink coffee together for hours on end while Parton worked through her songs.

Yes, this is about the people you surround yourself with, but it’s different from your circle of influence, which is important in other ways. A circle of influence helps you achieve goals externally. A kitchen cabinet listens and supports you while you work your process and do the creative work you need to do.

Think about that for a minute. When you’re creating and putting thoughts together, who do you use as your kitchen cabinet? Is that person really present and interested, tolerating the exercise, or trying to fix your work for you? If you’re bouncing off the wrong person, consider looking elsewhere in your life for people who “just likes to hear you think” and create your own “kitchen cabinet.”

As a leader, you can also do this for others but, remember, it must be someone you genuinely like to “hear think.”  Someone whose process fascinates you.  Someone you don’t feel compelled to help or fix.

Here’s your Courage Challenge for the day: Share this article with your team and ask each one of them to consider who encourages them, who pushes them, and who is in their kitchen cabinet. 

As always, share your stories in the comments! I like to hear you think!

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