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How Does a Leader Build a Work Ethic in a Recent Graduate?

Over a year ago, I returned from an overseas trip, tired and depleted. Upon my arrival home, however, I was scheduled to speak at an event in Michigan. So, I did what any healthy American would do. I repacked my bags and fulfilled my obligation…as a tired man.

What makes this story interesting is—I had scheduled an intern to join me on the trip. The intern was a recent college graduate who had not been on my trip, so I figured he’d be a breath of fresh air and a bundle of energy. But alas, I was wrong. He told me he felt he couldn’t go on the trip because he was tired.

Tired from what? I wondered.  He had barely put in forty hours that week. I was stunned to think that I, a fifty-year old man, had more energy than a 22-year old.

More than once, I’ve encountered great students who’ve never been introduced to hard work. The students aren’t bad or stupid. Just new to real work. Consider the reasons why youth today may enter the workforce with a poor work ethic and why we must introduce them to career expectations as their managers:

  1. This may sound cruel but its true: school has coddled them. Sure they work hard to write a paper or take a test but it isn’t a taste of the real world. In some majors in college, students can tour through four years without any early morning classes. This may be poor preparation for the job they’ll have at graduation. My trip to Asia; 10 events in 6 days; two days later: event in Michigan.
  2. Often, parents have protected them from it. The “real” world is still foreign as most high schoolers never work during their teen years. They’re busy with soccer, piano and parties. Unlike my teen years where the average student had to work to have any money, the average adolescent doesn’t have to until college and beyond. Bosses may be the first to introduce hard work.
  3. Expectations have shifted regarding responsibility. My research tells me that one hundred years ago, four-year-olds were expected to participate in family chores; “tweens” were working several hours a day; teens were leaders for their younger siblings. In fact, in one-room schoolhouses, the teacher taught older students (teens) so that those teens could teach the younger ones.

Tomorrow I plan to offer a handful of suggestions for introducing a work ethic to young people on the job. But today—I’d love for you to weigh in. Do you observe any other reasons why a strong “work ethic” may be new to students?



  1. TraceyWozniak on August 2, 2011 at 8:10 am

    One of the biggest observations I have noticed is the availablity and increased use of “service businesses”:  yard and lawn care, pool maintenance, and professional handymen. While these wonderful opportunities offer speed and efficiency they also leave little room for growing leaders to participate, explore, and experience hard work. When we were young(er) we got up on Saturday morning and pulled weeds, mowed the lawn, raked leaves… there were responsibilities above and beyond school. Today, we write the check for the yard guy and the children say, “I’m bored,  can I play the Wii?”

    • Tim Elmore on August 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm

      Great observation. It’s great that we have the option to use service businesses but the unintended consequences are still there!

  2. Stefanie Miles on August 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    This is so good and SUCH an important post. One of the values my family really instilled in me is work ethic, but even just 5 years out of college, I see the importance of this more and more every day. I see my own understanding and commitment to strong work ethic growing. I see peers that don’t understand or value this. I see lots of people with potential that’s untapped, because they don’t know how to get things done. Understanding how to take initiative appropriately, learning the art of resourcefulness, and being good stewards of time and making the most of every opportunity are all factors that build into a good work ethic. I think resting WELL one day a week so that we can work WELL the other 6 days is important too. I’m looking forward to your post tomorrow!  -Stefanie (Hash) Miles

    • Tim Elmore on August 2, 2011 at 11:31 pm

      Thanks for taking time to comment, Stefanie. It’s good to hear that you are finding this true in your own experiences. It’s certainly one thing to hear it from your parents or others but to actually reap the reward from it personally is really affirming. Best wishes to you!

  3. Rob on August 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Glad you are discussing this topic, Tim.

    One reason that students may be new to a strong “work ethic” is a surge in the access and amount of time students spend occupied with entertainment technology. iPods, iPhones, iPads, Kindles, Droids, portable game systems and other devices have made access to entertainment technology almost constant. Students who have developed a habit of spending vast amounts of time listening to music, watching movies, communicating with friends and strangers alike on Twitter and Facebook for social reasons may find it hard to all of a sudden prioritize and focus on what’s important for an extended period of time (ie a 9 hour work day). They may lose interest easily if they aren’t being supervised and neglect what’s most important for what’s fun at the moment.

    • Tim Elmore on August 2, 2011 at 11:32 pm

      Great insight. I definitely agree that the near-constant connection to the internet has affected the ability to focus for most in this generation. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Stephane on August 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    It may be that your intern and others like him, don’t want to work like you work because they don’t see the reward as worth the cost. Let me ask you: Do YOU want to be traveling internationally, doing 10 events in 6 days, and two days later doing another event in Michigan? Maybe you see exhaustion and jet lag and time away from family as worth it; your intern might not.

    My supervisor “complains” (read: boasts) that he regularly works 60 hours a week. That doesn’t inspire me to work harder; it makes me want to tell him to get a life.

    I’m a 28-year-old post-grad who’s trying to figure out what a proper “work ethic” might mean– and I’m not sure I want to take my cues from the established national culture.

    • Tim Elmore on August 2, 2011 at 11:45 pm

      I’m certainly not advocating 60 hour work weeks as the norm. I understand how you would want to react against that and set appropriate boundaries in that environment. I may not have made it clear in my post but I’m very intentional about taking time to reconnect with my family after extremely busy times. Finding that balance isn’t always easy but it is essential.

      What I am suggesting is that true life is found in pursuing a calling, using your gifts to their fullest capacity and reaching your potential. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to reaching these goals and good, hard work is the best way to get there.

      I wish you well in your quest to figure out what a proper work ethic looks like. You may not have the best examples in front of you but let me caution you about going too far to the other end of the spectrum. A well-developed work ethic will serve you well for the years ahead.

  5. Guest on August 2, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I need all the advice I can get in this one! I didn’t give my daughters everything they wanted, I just took care of them until they were out of HS, but now they don’t want to work! One has already been fired from two simple jobs! I need to know how to get them to that point where they know if they will survive…it’s not on Mom…Its on themselves! Single Mom here, so even though they were raised with only one parent, they were instilled with very good values and morals…I sometimes worked two jobs and I went back to school to better myself to be able to get a better job, this is what they were raised with!A discouraged, concerned Mom

    • Tim Elmore on August 2, 2011 at 11:53 pm

      This is a tough situation and you are certainly not the only parent facing this dilemma. I often recommend that parents give equal doses of privilege and responsibility.
      Unfortunately in our culture, we’ve often given children far too many privileges (using the car, paying their cell phone bill, giving spending money, etc) without requiring an equal amount of responsibility (like paying for the gas/insurance).

      My suggestion would be to find ways to require responsibility in order for privileges to continue. This could start small but it’s amazing how a lack of privileges will motivate responsible actions.

      I’d love to hear other parents weigh in on this as well. Is there anything you’ve found that has worked with your children?

  6. Becky on August 3, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    We have tried very hard to instill a strong work ethic in our children as was so ably modeled for us. Sometimes we feel pressure from peers to give my children everything those peers are giving their children. Also, not all extended family members are supportive and have even been vocal, even criticizing us to our children that they (the children) shouldn’t be treated as little servants or little soldiers.

    We surely aren’t perfect, but we need support as we prayerfully make decisions for our children. Our daughter, a rising HS senior, has worked two jobs this summer and is finishing up participating in a community musical. I am so proud of her. She has saved 75% of her income. And next week she is taking a week of vacation to be at the beach.

    She’s been up late at night for rehearsal and had to get up early the next morning for work. I’ve seen her extremely tired. I don’t think she would’ve been able to handle this schedule and do what she loves if she hadn’t learned a strong work ethic growing up.

    We have a 14-year-old son who comes to me regularly without asking to ask if he can help me. He and our 12-year-old daughter have volunteered to help with martial arts camp all summer. They would’ve gone every day if we hadn’t scheduled some rest days for them. Our children are by no means perfect, and they have their lazy moments, but we are extremely blessed.

    The long-term results are yet to be measured. But we badly need prayerful support from all extended family. Parenting is difficult enough.

    Thank you for your wonderful books, Tim.

    Becky in Richmond, Virginia

    • Tim Elmore on August 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Becky. I know it can be tough to maintain in the midst of all the challenges but it sounds like you are already reaping short-term benefits. The work ethic you instill will serve your children for life! Keep up the good work!

  7. Clay Morgan on August 22, 2011 at 8:46 am

    So true about activities replacing high school jobs. I’m always fascinated by the difference between my college students who are 17-24 and those who are older. So often I’ll listen to excuses like your intern gave while someone twice their age stands behind them rolling their eyes. A 40 year old student with 3 kids and 2 jobs is more productive than the 20 year old with a typical college existence. I’m going to read your suggestions now because it’s a difficult thing to effectively tell those students they need to suck it up and just do the simple assignment or show up for class.

    • Tim Elmore on August 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm

      I agree – it is a hard lesson for them to hear and even more challenging to learn! But I think we all agree, it is a necessary part of helping them grow up.

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How Does a Leader Build a Work Ethic in a Recent Graduate?