When the Chattanooga Better Business Bureau hired me as the keynote speaker for its annual luncheon, the president and CEO was very specific on what he wanted me to talk.
He called twice to stress that I should build my talk around integrity and ethics in business. He set the bar high on what he expected. I’m more comfortable when people have low expectations of me because I feel fairly certain that I can reach those.
Since I talk in stories, I spent a good bit of time thinking about which stories I could present. Finally, I decided to take a gamble. A fairly big gamble. One that had a good chance of backfiring. Fortunately, it didn’t. In fact, it was so well-received that when I finished, the crowd of several hundred stood and clapped for a few minutes.
The gamble was this: Before this audience of sophisticated, polished professionals and business owners, I opened by explaining that my Appalachian roots run several generations deep and that my people are a mixture of the righteous and renegades. The righteous looked to the Bible for their rules on conduct and how to treat their neighbors. The renegades, the ones who survived on the business of moonshining, mostly made their own rules but, interestingly, they had a set of standards for strict ethical behavior.
"Are you going to tell the story about your great-uncle who shot dead his former partner because he told the revenuers where his still was located?" Tink asked. "And that, before he ‘kilt’ him, he said, ‘I told’cha I would, and I always keep my word.’"
Tink loves that story. (Occasionally, we’ll be sitting at dinner with folks in Los Angeles who have never seen a Southern mountain, and he will say, "Tell them about your daddy’s uncle and how he kept his word.")
"No," I replied firmly. "I think that would be pushing it too far for the fine business leaders of Chattanooga.
But I did say, "They had a very strict code of ethics. They believed in delivering a good product at a reasonable price that provided a profit margin. They kept their word and they delivered on time as promised, so people kept coming back. They had a high set of business standards."
I paused for a beat and smiled.
"It was authority they had trouble with."
That remark was rewarded by a ripple of laughter through the large room.
It’s all true, though. They may not have been well-educated, but they were intuitive and had business sense. They knew better than to overcharge — there was, after all, a full market of competitors in the mountains — and to always deliver as promised.
Those renegades could teach a lot of people I know a thing or two about business. I’m so tired of people not keeping their word on making deliveries or keeping appointments. I have countless stories on that. Recently, I had made an appointment for a Saturday delivery. All week, leading up to that day, I worked long days trying to get my business done so I would be ready for the delivery.
"Just reschedule it," Tink said. "There’s no need to kill yourself."
"Absolutely not," I replied. "I made a commitment, and I’m going to keep it."
On the afternoon before the delivery, it was rescheduled for the second straight week.
A couple of days later, my dear friend, Miss Virgie, said, "I know how you feel about people not showing up to do the work they promise. Whenever I hire someone, I find myself praying that they will show up."
No one had to pray for the renegades to keep their word.
Prayer wouldn’t have worked with them, anyway. They just did what was right and treated folks like they wanted to be treated.
Where have all the good renegades gone? We could use some help.
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