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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