The One Surprising Habit of Effective Leaders


74466_161_d9-4_c_lgWe usually think about leadership as the art of doing big, important stuff: creating a vision, making decisions, inspiring people. You know, leading.

But here’s a funny thing: many effective leaders spend a lot of time doing the opposite. Specifically, they spend time picking up stuff on the floor. Cleaning up. Playing janitor.

Exhibit A: LeBron James, who spent an evening last week picking up the team’s laundry from the locker-room floor after a game.

Exhibit B: Exhibit B: Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, was famous for picking up trash. “Every night you’d see him coming down the street, walking close to the gutter, picking up every McDonald’s wrapper and cup along the way,” former McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner told author Alan Deutschman. “He’d come into the store with both hands full of cups and wrappers. I saw Ray spend one Saturday morning with a toothbrush cleaning out holes in the mop wringer. No one else really paid attention to the damned mop wringer, because everyone knew it was just a mop bucket. But Kroc saw all the crud building up in the holes, and he wanted to clean them so the wringer would work better.”

Exhibit C: John Wooden. Back in the mid-sixties, when UCLA’s men’s basketball team was in the midst of one of the most successful eras in sports history – ten titles in 12 years — Franklin Adler, the team’s student manager, saw something odd: Coach Wooden picking up trash in the locker room. “Here was a man who had already won three national championships,” Adler said, “a man who was already enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a player, a man who had created and was in the middle of a dynasty – bending down and picking up scraps from the locker room floor.”

Exhibit D: The New Zealand All-Blacks, the best rugby team on the planet, who have formalized this into a habit they call “Sweeping the Sheds.” Basically, the team leaders are in charge of keeping the locker room clean.

This is a striking pattern. These are terrific, accomplished leaders of highly successful groups, and they are spending their valuable time on what would seem to be the most trivial, tedious, and mundane tasks imaginable — using a toothbrush to clean crud from mop buckets. Why?

The answer, I think, is that we tend to think about leadership in the wrong way. We tend to focus on the big, showy moves, when what really matters is the small, humble moments when the leader sends a relational signal of connection. These moments are vital because they contain several signals:

  • I am not above you
  • This place matters — we have standards
  • You should do this kind of thing too
  • We are about things that are bigger than ourselves

It adds up to a leadership mindset that I would call a muscular humility – an approach that constantly seeks simple ways to help and support the group. The reason these signals are powerful is not just because they are moral or generous, but also because they send a larger signal that every group needs to be sent over and over: we are all in this together. Because the point of leadership is not to do great things, but rather to create an environment where the whole group can do great things together.

If you have any similar stories about leadership, feel free to share below. I’d love to hear them.

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9 Responses to “The One Surprising Habit of Effective Leaders”

  1. Michael says:

    Yes, My mentor (Moe Moser), a restaurant owner, would often be seen washing dishes. Today I come to work early every morning wash floors and clean beacuse that the way Moe taught me. I love it.
    Thank you

  2. Nick says:

    Weston Noble, the conductor of the world-famous Luther College Nordic Choir for over 50 years, used to be seen cleaning up trash around campus on a regular basis. When I became a music teacher, I took on his tradition and asked my student leaders to do the same. When my drum major later became an English teacher, she continued the tradition and was recognized for it by her school’s staff. Two more signals: I control my environment (and so do you). Little stuff counts.

  3. Greg says:

    I love the article and agree that this type of servant leadership is effective and empowering. I think one of the reasons that we tend to think of leadership in the wrong way is that leadership theory started from some of the “great man” or trait approaches that emphasize a sort of big personality with hero traits. Our presidential process this year seems to be the perpetual searching for a hero or savior, and we see where that gets us.

    I love the story – not sure who to attribute it to though I think I saw it first in Tim Elmore’s work – of the CEO of Six Flags trying to figure out why the janitorial staff were getting complaints. The story goes that he did an undercover boss sort of thing before that became a show and became a part of the custodial staff for a time. He realized the staff were seeing consumers as a part of the problem – they were dirtying up the park and therefore the enemy to a clean place. The story goes that he asked them to reframe their jobs as making it a great experience for the customer, and keeping things clean was a part of making it that kind of experience. I love the reframe to the organizations mission, and the willingness of the CEO to get a little dirty doing it.

  4. Steve says:

    Bob Hurley, Hall of Fame Coach at St. Anthony High School, winner of 28 state championships, insists on sweeping the gym floor every day before practices and games.

  5. Robert Johansson says:

    Preventing bad habits by establishing good habits first.
    Later it can be difficult not to say impossible to change the attitude of players. Goon is a movie on this subject btw.
    Main difference between perception/beliefs and behaviors.

  6. John says:

    It is the narcissistic business owner that tells his team when he is disappointed, very disappointed that his team was not able to facilitate a client’s unreasonable request at the last minute. A team leader helps the rest of his team with a solution for next time and or services the client’s last minute request themselves. Lead by example in a nurturing way, be willing an able to perform the hardest task with your team. Set the standards, be the person your other team members want to be in all aspects.

  7. Will Dooley says:

    Summer camp owner/director in my youth, a crusty WWII artillery colonel, was constantly picking up those little scraps of paper that somehow found their way onto the grounds. He called it “the director’s stoop.” Later, in that same role, I’d do the same.

  8. Joe Steranka says:

    Daniel, thank you for sharing your insights on learning and leadership. Having started at the bottom and worked my way to the top of leading sports organizations, I can especially relate to the culture instilled in organizations when leaders take on the most menial of tasks. I made quite a career in golf and had several mentors demonstrate their commitment to provide extraordinary golf courses by doing little things to add to the pristine conditions. Picking up candy wrappers, cigarette butts (ugh), fixing other ball marks on greens and improperly raked bunkers instills a “leave it better than you found it” culture which usually ends up with very special places. I embraced this early in my career and noticed my behavior had a bigger impact the higher I went in business. It sounds simple, but simple doesn’t always results in adoption. Thanks for the inspiration. Joe Steranka, former CEO, PGA of America, @beagolfleader

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hi Joe, You just made my day. Thank you.

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