Sunday, April 11, 2010

Going Humble with the Amish

I love this guest post by Erik Wesner - a great leadership lesson! Looks like an interesting book too.

I recently gave the teenage son of an Amish friend a lift. Amish don’t drive of course, but generally have no problem accepting rides.

We had a big day planned: first stop was a carriage shop in the heart of the Lancaster County settlement, where “Elam” as we’ll call him, would order a new buggy. A younger brother was turning 16, which meant he’d inherit Elam’s vehicle, clearing the way for Elam to get a new one (the tab for a new buggy, in case you were wondering? Around $7-8000 or more, depending on the features—and there are more than you might think).
Next, we were meant to stop at a hardware store, where he had a $150 gift certificate to spend. The gift certificate was a present from his boss on the local carpentry crew where he’d worked a little under a year.

Curious, I asked Elam some more about the gift. It was a year-end bonus he had received as a thank-you for work well done. As he spoke about his boss, Elam nearly bubbled over, going on and on in warm tones. Something about the man had obviously moved him.

As he continued, I learned that on another occasion he’d received a titanium hammer, tough and light for a more efficient drive. Another nice plus, but I sensed the gifts weren’t the root of this young man’s affection.

I tried to dig deeper. “What exactly is it about him that makes him a good boss?” I asked.

After a few stops and starts, he explained as best he could that it was the fact that he didn’t “act” like a boss. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. From time to time he’d show up to work on jobs with his employees.

While there, he’d follow his own foreman’s instructions—essentially subjugating himself to one of his own employees, who, he was able to recognize, knew more of what was going on and was in a better position to make decisions on that particular job.

The Amishman realized that he didn’t know everything. He let the people he put in charge do the work he’d entrusted them with. He was a boss without being bossy. He was a humble leader.

Even at his young age, Elam could sense that his leader was special. Having listened to his explanation, I was hardly surprised. Among Amish businesses, humble leadership is nothing unusual.

Amish run 9,000 companies across North America, everything from roadside produce stands to large manufacturing firms and furniture makers producing upscale goods for national markets. Amish have shifted from agriculture into entrepreneurship over the past few decades, as large families and rising land prices have put farming, long considered the ideal occupation, out of reach for many.

Yet those firms have thrived, with a success rate measured at over 90%. One reason Amish have done well is the environment they foster in their businesses. Leadership by example is second nature in this community. Talk to an Amish businessperson about his on-the-job philosophy, and “I’d never ask you to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do” is an idea that comes up again and again.

One Amish manager, Jonas Lapp, shares his thoughts. You should pick up trash on the job, he explains. Jonas doesn’t do it all the time, but when he does, his men notice.

Amish builder Ezra Miller’s 18 employees have been with him for an average of 9 years. Ezra’s personal touch is evident in everything from the occasional on-the-clock breakfasts out, to his willingness to work with youth who may have struggled elsewhere.

And while the businesses Amish run are labor-intensive and craftsmanship-oriented, dictated by the 8th grade education level typical of the community, the principle remains the same whatever the business. “Doing the dirty work” translates to anything that shows humility (spending an hour in sales calling prospects, staying late so an employee can take off early for a daughter’s recital, tidying the lunch room, and so on).

Everything from the uniform clothing they wear to the messages they hear during the 3-hour Sunday service encourages the idea of humility in Amish society. So it may come as second nature. But it’s hardly an exclusively “Amish” trait.

It doesn’t have to be every day. But when you do come down off the perch, even the little things get noticed. And you certainly don’t have to drive a horse-and-buggy to practice humble leadership.

Erik Wesner is a former sales manager and nationally-recognized Amish researcher. His just-released book Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive was recently profiled in Time magazine. Find out more at


Nicole said...

I think this is great. There is a lot we can learn about being humble. Just because we are in a position of power does not mean we have the right to abuse that power with arrogance. I am learning to much about what makes a strong leader and this is a great example of leadership.

Dan McCarthy said...

Nicole -
Agree, it's a nice example. Thanks.

Erik Wesner said...

Hi Nicole, thanks for commenting on my post--I think it can be easy to slip into an arrogance for some who mistake arrogance as a way of projecting strength. A humble approach counter-intuitively is the stronger one.

The Amish essentially have this built-in to the culture--humility is a chief value in Amish society--but it's really a choice of mindset anyone can make, manifested in our actions and words.

Robyn Rickenbach said...

Terrific post ... I've always respected the Amish for thier hard work and intuitive sense of "doing the right thing." Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

There can never be any doubt, that a spiritual attitude to human life underlies those inner qualities displayed by any who treasure it. A spiritual view of that life with which we are entrusted by holy Providence, leads naturally to an attitude of humility, forbearnce, & the will to temperance. The world fights and schemes to no purpose - but a spiritual life has quality that gains true friends & trust in turn. The origin of the Amish & other communities like them, lay in Pietism, which is a belief that we lead a sacramental life, & that an accounting will be required of us, when we leave it. Nothing will work properly without an abiding spiritual foundation.

Kirk Vandezande said...

Mr Wesner's examples of respectful leadership are great reading for all managers. His work reminds me of Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf, a recently-retired CEO of GM who wrote in the late 1960s.

The traditional, simple and uniform life of the Amish illustrates Wesner's thesis well, but it also lets mainstream readers off the hook. If we see the Amish as different, we may be tempted to excuse ourselves from the challenge to lead organizations (lives) in an equally faithful manner.

Virtuous leadership is not specific to the Amish, nor to "plain folk" in general. Each of us who takes to heart the Christian gospel must reach similar conclusions. A Christian is not true to the gospel except by leading with patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control.

Kirk Vandezande
Toronto ON

Tim Griffith said...

Great post - I love the phrase, "I'd never ask you to do something I wouldn't be willing to do."

How often leaders' actions say, "I'll ask you to do all the things I don't want to do (or shouldn't have to do, or am too important to do)"

Ross said...

I find it interesting that in "Smart Brief on Leadership" the Amish article and this article:
( Why Steve Jobs doesn't need a sensitive side) are side by side.

Mike Clough said...

I have just started reading this book. It is really fascinating! Although the Amish business owner views things from a different perspective than the business owners with whom I have worked, you can't argue with their superior results and the fact that they do things for the right reasons.

The book is very well written and once I have finished it, I will be reviewing it at my blog ( which is aimed at small business owners, as I think all business owners and entrepreneurs can learn a lot from the Amish business model.

Thanks Erik for writing this book and sharing your thoughts here.

Erik Wesner said...

Thanks Robyn, Amish know having "doing the right thing" at the core will never lead one the wrong way.

And Anonymous, you are correct, a strong faith and spirituality are at the root of the Amish humble approach.

I think that orientation makes it easier for them--though I think humility is a choice of mindset and there are various ways to reach that destination. Thanks for sharing!

George said...

More and More Corporate executive teams need to read this message. It is there teams of Managers and employees with the desire, knowledge and creativity that keeps the business running. Everyone works for a "Company" no one works for an "individual". using this type of methodology will get you the outcome and teamwork that makes a company successful and a CUSTOMER Happy.

Erik Wesner said...

Mr Vandezande, appreciate the kind comments. You make a very good point about seeing the Amish as 'different' than we are.

One thing I try to emphasize when I speak on the Amish is that though the packaging may appear different, what's inside really isn't. Thanks for bringing this up.

Erik Wesner said...

Mike, many thanks and I'm glad you are enjoying the book.

And you make a good point on the 'right reasons'--just gave a talk last night in which I discussed some of the answers you get when you ask Amish owners the basic (but for many of us, challenging) question "What does 'success' mean?"

The answers are surprisingly consistent--while income is important, they more often emphasize what that income enables you to do--in terms of lifestyle, family, giving back, legacy and continuity.

I found it a refreshing message as I did the research for this book.

Thanks again for your interest and the great discussion.

Erik Wesner said...

Tim--well put--or how about "don't want to be seen doing".

Dan McCarthy said...

I love it when the author of a guest post takes the time to read and respond to reader comments. Thanks, Erik, well done.

Unknown said...


Great post as always. As a leader showing humility can inspire employees. Being willing to do some of the work you're employees do, can go a long way to show this humility. It surely does get noticed by others and it sounds like the Amish have it down.

Anshul Gupta said...

Certainly a very nice example of the power of being humble. It's all about forgetting who you are. It's all about treating people as human and not as machine...

If you give respect, you will get respect...If you give crap, you will receive crap...