Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Servant Leadership

Reading the article mentioned in the previous post led to checking for articles that I may have missed, hence this article on by Joel Spolsky

I think this opening anecdote says it all, although the application of the anecdote to Joel's company, Fog Creek Software is quite fun to read as well.

At one point as a grunt in the Israeli Army, I was assigned to work for a high-ranking sergeant major. This guy had years of experience. He was probably 20 years older than me and the other kids in the unit. Even in the field, he always looked immaculate -- he wore a spotless, starched, pressed, full-dress uniform with impeccably polished shoes no matter how dusty and muddy the world around him got. You had the feeling that he slept under 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets each night while the rest of us rolled around in dusty sleeping bags on the ground.

As for the sergeant major's job, it basically consisted of two main duties: being the chief disciplinary officer and maintaining the physical infrastructure of the base. As such, he was a terror to everyone in the battalion. Most people knew him only from the way he strutted around, conducting inspections, screaming at the top of his lungs, and demanding impossibly high standards of order and cleanliness in what was essentially a bunch of tents in the middle of the desert -- tents that were alternately dust-choked or mud-choked, depending on the rain situation.

Anyway, on my first day of work for the sergeant major, I didn't know what to expect. I was sure it was going to be horrible, a suspicion that seemed to be confirmed when he took me to the officers' bathroom and told me I would be responsible for keeping it clean. And then he said something I didn't anticipate.

"Here's how you clean a toilet," he said.

And he got down on his knees in front of the porcelain bowl -- in his pressed-starched-spotless dress uniform -- and scrubbed it with his bare hands until it shined.

To a 19-year-old assigned to clean toilets, which is almost by definition the worst possible job in the world, the sight of this high-ranking, 38-year-old, manicured, pampered disciplinary officer cleaning a toilet was a shock. And it completely reset my attitude. If he can clean a toilet, I can clean a toilet, I thought. There's nothing wrong with cleaning toilets. My loyalty and inspiration from that moment on were unflagging. Now that's leadership.


Our company was built on the idea of hiring smart and productive people and then clearing the decks. The late, great minicomputer company Digital Equipment Corporation, better known as DEC, was so adamant about this idea that people in the company used the word administration in place of management and modeled its corporate hierarchy on that of a great research university.

The brains behind the university are the professors. They do the groundbreaking medical experiments on rhesus monkeys and gain insight into the psychology of man by closely observing the behavior of college sophomores. Obviously, these geniuses shouldn't waste a moment of their valuable time on administrative tasks.

Thus, universities hire support staff to collect tuition payments and figure out who should get that great parking space near the duck pond. (At the very most, a good university might rotate the administrative tasks among the faculty, but ideally, it has a team of professionals to keep the trains running on time.) DEC behaved in much the same way.

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