As a leader, you don’t deserve to be followed, listened to, trusted, or respected. You must earn it. And the best way to earn it is to get your hands dirty. Do the dirty dishes.
It’s why we so often see business leaders and politicians on television, in the news, or on their website with a shovel hand—as if they are the ones actually breaking ground on a new project. They understand that people like to see a leader in the trenches. They crave the relatable public image of getting their hands dirty. It’s their way of “doing the dirty dishes.”
But the photo op is unfortunately where it stops for many of these shallow leaders. Once the cameras shut off, they take off the hardhat, go back to their cushy offices and hide from their employees. They’ve become far too focused on their public image, that they forget all about their reputation with the very people they are directly responsible to. For the shallow leader, it’s more about public relations than actual people relations—there is no understanding or acknowledgement of practical and personal accountability.
When I was 15, I got my first part-time job at a supermarket. I was making $7 an hour, I was at the bottom of the totem pole, and I really didn’t understand anything about leadership. But I saw that my boss (let’s call him Bill) would spend most of his time in his office, up the steps and around the corner, far down the hall from the employee break room, far removed from anyone who worked for him.
Bill didn’t know my name, nor did he know the names of the other employees who worked there. We almost never saw Bill, but when we did, it was during a big event. If a sports figure were to come by, if there was a food drive happening, or if a local politician were doing a meet-and-greet, Bill knew that news reporters wouldn’t be far behind with their cameras. He was more available to the cameras than he was to his own employees. He was more willing to do a photo op outside the store than he was to help with anything menial inside the store. That was my first direct impression of leadership.
Ironically, Bill made me want to become a leader. At 15, I genuinely thought that leadership was sitting up in an office, not interacting with employees and customers, taking photos with famous people, AND getting paid for it. That was my dream.
Imagine how many other young kids in the world have the same experience.
Luckily, I’ve learned to put to good use most of what I learned from bad bosses like Bill.
In “Build a Moat, but Lower the Drawbridge,” I talked about not having an office during my time as a restaurant manager. Not only did I not have one, but I didn’t want one. Because one of the key lessons I learned from Bill is that offices, even when the door is left wide open, create an unnecessary divide between the boss and the employees. I learned that I needed to be on the floor. I needed to be available to the staff. I needed to lead by example. And not just in front of the cameras.
Part of leading by example involved three of the dirtiest jobs in a restaurant: taking out the trash, cleaning the bathrooms, and doing the dishes. Of course, “dishwasher” is an actual hirable position. But there was no such luck for trash and bathrooms. So I developed an unwritten rule that only management (and any employee who broke the rules) was allowed to clean the bathrooms. I also made it a point, at the end of each night, to help take the trash out to the dumpsters. And thirdly, whenever the dishwasher needed help or was not scheduled, I was there to do the dirty dishes.
I learned early on that I don’t deserve to be followed, listened to, trusted, or respected simply due to my position. I had to earn it. So, I picked the three dirtiest jobs in the restaurant, and made it a priority to lead by example. My employees began to notice that I was literally in the trenches with them every single day. It had a magical effect. Soon, they were taking it upon themselves to clean the bathrooms, take out the trash, and help with the dirty dishes. It was a revelation to them that a leader would do the hardest and dirtiest of jobs. And one of the greatest advantages? It helped me appreciate and respect even the lowest of responsibilities in the restaurant, and brought me closer to those who do them.
For the true leader, the lesson is clear: you may be above your subordinates on an org chart or in the chain of command, but you are not actually superior to them. You are accountable to your people as much as they are accountable to you.
There is no job too small or too low for you. And that includes taking out the trash, cleaning the bathrooms, and doing the dirty dishes.
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