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Do the Dirty Work

I grew up working in a small town gas station my Dad owned in east Texas. Starting at the age of 7, I’d spend summer days sweeping parking lots, cleaning gas pumps, and stocking the coolers at the store as my chores before I could play with my neighborhood friends or head to baseball practice.

I hated every minute of it.

Sometimes my dad would jump in and help me stock the cooler or change out a soda line that had run out of syrup. I didn’t understand why he was going that or was making me work in the store. Didn’t we pay employees to do all of this, I asked him one day.

“We do – but many times throughout life a leader has to get in there and do the work himself.”

He went on to teach me about the importance of setting the example for a team. He said,

“It doesn’t matter how high up you are in the company, how much money you make, or what your title is – a great leader will always set the example with their life instead of just their lips. Great leaders are never too high and mighty to roll up their sleeves and sweep the parking lot if that’s what it takes to help the team succeed.

“Besides, if I’m going to ask my team to do a task, I need to show them that I’m willing to do it too. Nothing is beneath me or them.”

Sweep up the sugar.

Just because you make more money than someone in a company doesn’t make you more important as a human than they are. Competitors make great leaders because they’re willing to put in the work they also expect others to do.

Compare my Dad’s work ethic with an individual I worked with years later as a consultant. This particular individual had experienced some success decades earlier and still mentally lived in that era. He was in an authority position as owner of an organization but would never even make his own cup of tea. He’d make a mess at the conference table during meetings with sugar packets and spilled tea, but would never clean it up – always leaving it for someone on his team to pick up after him.

Even worse, 99% of the time that someone he asked to clean it up was a female employee.

He expected high standards and accountability in his employees, but failed to lead in a similar manner. He saw himself better than his employees, then wondered why his company culture became toxic. 

Culture starts at the top. Leadership is influenced by actions, not words on a wall or printed in a mission statement.

Sweep the sheds.

The New Zealand All Blacks are one of the most feared rugby teams in the sport’s history – and one of the most dominant franchises of all time. They have a franchise lifetime winning percentage of 77%, higher than any other team in any other sport in the world.

As documented in James Kerr’s book Legacy, one thing that sets the All Blacks apart from other teams is their culture of “Sweeping the Shed.” It is the tradition that no individual player is bigger than the team and its history. Everyone is responsible for every single detail, including “sweeping the shed” (cleaning out the locker room after a match). Before leaving the dressing room after a match, players tidy up after themselves, leaving it spotless. It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest star in the sport or a rookie, everyone takes responsibility to pick up after themselves.

This culture of personal responsibility and leadership has helped continue their culture of dominance on the field by making sure every player is committed to one truth: no one is too big to do the little things and do them well.

Managers talk. Leaders act.

There’s a difference between having a title and being a leader. Titles go on business cards, professional resumes, and organizational charts. But they have little to do with being a leader other than the expectation is the more prestigious your title, the better leader you should be.

Managers have a fancy title, higher pay, and tell their teams what to do. They rely on their mouth to tell others what to do and care little if their own actions go against the standard they expect others to live up to. Managers don’t do the dirty work because, as I heard someone literally say in an office, “I pay someone to do that type of work that’s beneath my time.”

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and influence their teams on what to do – while setting the example themselves by how they act. Leaders pay teammates to do specific roles, but aren’t afraid to step in and help if a need arises. Be it in a presentation, cleaning the office kitchen sink, or carrying boxes into a new office.

A leader is never too big to roll up her sleeves and do the dirty work.

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