The leadership essence of Dolly Parton - SmartBrief

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The leadership essence of Dolly Parton

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This post is excerpted with permission from “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership,” by John Baldoni (Bibliomotion, 2014). Baldoni is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership, chair of leadership development at N2Growth, and an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2014, Trust Across America named him to its list of top 100 most trustworthy business experts. Also in 2014, named John to its list of top 100 leadership experts, and Global Gurus ranked him No. 11 on its list of global leadership experts.

Dolly Parton

The thing that resonates most with me about Dolly Parton is heart. You hear it in her songs and she acts on it in her life.

While some might be distracted by her over-the-top looks — big hair, big smile, and big bosom — it is her voice that attracts the most attention. It is at once soulful and playful. It radiates joy as well as sorrow. Most of all, it registers sincerity, and for that reason she has forged a relationship with her fans that spans generations.

Few would have predicted that a woman, one of twelve children, from humble origins in Sevierville, Tennessee, would rise to such prominence as a singer-songwriter, selling more than 100 million records. Her hardscrabble beginnings, coupled with her love of family, steeled her determination to pursue her craft. She was not only singing, but also writing songs as a youngster. Parton turned professional at age ten and appeared on local radio and television in Knoxville. As a young teen, she made her first appearance on country music’s (then) biggest stage — the Grand Ole Opry. After graduating from high school, she moved to Nashville.

By age twenty-one she was appearing regularly on TV’s “The Porter Wagoner Show,” singing duets with Wagoner. She had a string of country music hits and won the Country Music Award for female vocalist in 1975 and 1976. After that came more hits, but the wider appeal did not deter Parton from going back to her roots in gospel as well as bluegrass.

Essence of Dolly

To me, her song “Better Get to Livin’” offers insights that every leader ought to keep at the ready. That song, the lead track of her 2008 album Backwoods Barbie, allows Parton, the Oprah of Appalachia, to reveal the secret of her long career — “living, giving, forgiving, and some lovin’. ” Not only do these words make good sense for country music enthusiasts, they make sense for leaders. Let’s take them one at a time.

Living. Leaders need to be mindful of their situation and the situations of those they lead. They are aware of the impact their actions have on others and they seek to do what is best for the organization.

Giving. Leaders give of themselves so others can succeed. That means you spend time coaching and developing your people. Provide them with guidance to help them build upon their strengths, overcome their shortcomings, and give them a shoulder to cry on when times are tough.

Forgiving. People make mistakes. If they acknowledge it and seek to make amends, move forward. Get over it. A leader cannot afford grudges; it rubs off negatively on others and drains energy from the team.

Loving. Apply this to your work. Have a passion for what you do; it will inspire the entire team. A leader who enjoys her work and the people with whom she works is one who encourages people to follow her lead.

There are a few other words that Parton uses in this song that also apply to leadership behavior. Among them are knowing, understanding your values; shining, standing up for yourself; and showing, letting others know you care. And there is another word Parton uses — healing. Leaders must exert themselves to bring people together. Rifts need to be breached, wounds bound, and feelings assuaged. All of these are leadership responsibilities. Success came early for Parton, but not without some hardship and sacrifice. All of her trials, tribulations, and joys are reflected in her music. Not only does she play and sing, she writes much of her own material. She has created a business enterprise worth hundreds of millions and yet is not without ironic humor about herself. She says, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” With her “glad to know ya” smile and country soprano voice, Dolly Parton knows her audience, and time and again she delivers what they want to hear. The woman knows her heart and herself.

Wider Appeal

Success in music led Parton to Hollywood. She made her film debut in the 1980 movie about savvy secretaries called “9 to 5,” for which she got an Academy Award nomination. Three decades later she penned music and lyrics for a musical version of “9 to 5” that played in Los Angeles and later on Broadway.

Her major entrepreneurial effort is Dollywood, a theme park, which opened in 1986 and is located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Not surprisingly, Parton’s financial advisors told her not to do the project. She told them, “Well, I’m gonna do it anyway, because I know it’s the right thing to do in my gut.” The park has thrived, and in 2013 she announced a ten-year $300 million expansion of the facility.

One interest that radiates from Parton’s heart is her reading program. For the past two decades, Parton has been giving books to children as a means of fostering literacy. She founded Imagination Library and, as she said on PBS’s “NewsHour,” “Everywhere I go, the kids call me ‘Book Lady.’” As Parton explains, “It really … started out as a very personal thing for me … originally meant for the folks in my home county … There were not books in our house growing up.” Her father was illiterate, which Parton describes as a “crippling thing for him.” Today, her Dollywood Foundation sends books to kids in 1,700 communities throughout the United States, Canada, and England.

“The older I get the more appreciative I seem to be of the book lady title,” says Parton. “It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or entertainer. But it makes me feel like I have done something good with my life and with my success.” You hear in those words the little girl born into poverty who rose above it with her talent, her commitment to her art, and her genuine engagement with others. In 2006 Parton was recognized by the Kennedy Center for her contribution to the arts, a rare tribute for a performer with country roots.

Dolly Parton’s life as reflected through her art and in her actions is a shining example of what it means to live with heart. She reflects the essence of engagement, of putting yourself into your work. Leaders must foster commitment from others but first must be committed themselves. Dolly Parton shows us how that can happen.


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