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Yes, Sometimes Real Leaders Do Clean Toilets

A Dallas elementary school principal demonstrated through her actions what a true servant leader should be.

The Janitorial Tools of the Trade

As a management consultant and professor, one of the biggest "pet peeves" I have is what I call the "hands-off manager." In all likelihood, you have had the misfortune of working for a boss who was just such a manager at some point in your career. For that, I am sorry, as for as much as we talk about the concept of servant leadership, many mangers just don't—or won't—embrace what that concept really means!

And as we navigate in our daily lives, we see it happen again and again—whether in a retail store, in a restaurant, at a hotel, or even in a health care setting. No matter how much the line backs up at the supermarket checkout, no matter how many customers are in line at the bank, no matter how many patients need to be checked in for service, there are those managers who will never ever, ever, ever step-up and actually help out when needed—let alone risk getting their hands dirty in doing so. It's almost as if some managers believe that when they get promoted and have some semblance of a title, they say to themselves - and even to other around them: "That's it! I don't have to do any real work again!

And so while we may talk about the merits of being a servant leader, we still have far too many leaders throughout companies, organizations, and government agencies of all types and of all sizes that look upon themselves as being leaders of servants instead. Perhaps it is because of their having bad role models for our own managers. Perhaps it is out of some misguided notion they hold about what it means to be "in charge." Perhaps it is simply out of arrogance—and a bit too much pride on their part. For whatever the reason, the notion of management as royalty—and needing to be separated from the actual work being done and the workers who are performing it—is one that needs to be obliterated and totally done away with if an organization truly wants to succeed today.

Dr. Adreana Davis (left), Principal at Frank Guzick Elementary School in Dallas, Texas

So, why has this story out of Dallas, Texas resonated with so many people? It is because it is such a simple story—a day in the life of Dr. Adreana Davis, the Principal at Frank Guzick Elementary School. And from all reports, this was not unusual on the part of Ms. Davis, who practices servant leadership on a daily basis in leading her school. The difference of course, in the social media age in which we live, is that admiring teachers took out their phones and immortalized the moment on social media. And what Dr. Davis did on one day recently stands out as an excellent example of what it means to truly be a servant leader, truly putting the needs of those you serve and those who work with you first!

As the video above explains, what Dr. Davis did was so very, very simple. When the sole custodian at her school was called away for an emergency, she took matters into her own hands and pushed the custodial cart down the schools hallways and proceeded to do the cleaning tasks that needed to be done. Rather than being the school leader who might just be tempted to think, "Well, we can ignore that smell for a while!" or "God, I hope no kid will throw-up today!" Dr. Davis demonstrated the true meaning of what it means to be a servant leader.

Dr. Davis obviously believes in the axiom that quality work will only occur in a good environment—and she saw no reason that the custodian's absence should mean that her students should have to deal with the—shall we say—"unpleasantries" that can, and do, happen in elementary school bathrooms! As Dr. Davis explained in an interview with the local ABC affiliate, WFAA:

“As the leader of the building, that’s one of the expectations I have for myself and my staff—is to ensure that our kids have the best possible place to be educated." She recognized that the absence of the building's sole cleaning person was a critical one, and that "in her absence, things needed to get done." And one of the things that needed to get done, probably desperately, was the fact that "some restrooms needed to be cleaned."

But unlike many managers in charge of underlings in organizations far and wide, Dr. Davis didn't elect the easier—and cleaner—path of simply delegating the task of cleaning the girls and the boys restrooms. She didn't call upon one of her already overtaxed teachers to do what needed to be done or enlist the aid of her students in what could arguably be a "teachable," but unpleasant, moment to help clean their own bathrooms. No, Dr. Davis explained that she just simply saw what needed to be done and did it: “I just put those gloves on and got to work.”

And what makes this an even more remarkable story is the reaction of the teachers—and the custodian—at the school. When they saw their principal pushing the custodian's cart and grabbing the mop to clean the restrooms, they weren't surprised in the least! Sure, they grabbed their smartphones to capture the moment for posterity, which led to all of us knowing about it since it went viral on social media, but they did not see her actions as out of the ordinary. She obviously demonstrated what it means to be a servant leader on a daily basis, and so that meant that her actions on the day of the custodian's absence, while remarkable for a school principal, were not out of character for her. As Dr. Davis explained to the local reporter:

"We do what we need to do. It doesn’t matter what your title is.” Upon her return to the school, the custodian, Ms. Tameka Johnson, admitted that she was a bit shocked—and relieved—at what she found: "I was like, oh my gosh, I didn’t want her (Dr. Davis) to see how that (the restroom) looks."

But she had no need to worry, for despite how bad a boy's aim was on that day, or what the cafeteria was serving for lunch, when Ms. Johnson came back to work, her work had been done and the quality of the student's environment had not been compromised in the least.

So, in the end, what is the lesson that we should take away from this simple story? It is that when you are truly trying to put servant leadership into practice, you can't make choices about when to be "on point" and when to not be. In the eyes of your employees, you either are a servant leader or you are not. Dr. Davis' teachers and staff members at her school weren't surprised that she was willing to (literally) get her hands dirty to ensure that:

  • The students had a good learning environment.
  • That they weren't called upon to do the "dirty work" for her.

The thing that makes this remarkable in Ms. Davis's case is that her actions weren't perceived as being out of character by her employees, they were seen as entirely within it. Obviously, she had consistently demonstrated her "street cred" as a servant leader before, and so, when she began pushing the janitor's cart down the hallway and into the restrooms that was seen—both by her and by her charges—as simply the principal doing what needed to be done. The fact that it wasn't remarkable is what makes her actions all the more remarkable!

And so, in the end, you can choose to look upon this great little leadership story in one of two ways: You can ask why is it so extraordinary in this day and age for a leader to take these kind of actions, or you can celebrate the fact that this leader did step-up to do so. I choose the latter. However, I would ask anyone who is a manager at any level the simple question: Would you have done the same thing as Ms. Davis? And be honest, many of you would not want to go anywhere near such a situation. However, being a servant leader means just that—being a servant all the time, not just when it is easy, when it is clean, or when the cameras are rolling on folks' smartphones. The situation she was presented with was a test of Ms. Davis's character, and she passed with unbelievably flying colors. And so ask yourself, would your employees really see you as the leader willing to clean a toilet? If not, even if you say you are practicing servant leadership, then you are not truly a servant leader, and you really need to take a hard look in the mirror. In doing so, you may become the leader you truly aspire to be—and the leader your employees and your employer—want you to be.

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